Strictly for Partying Surfaholics

El Tunco, El Salvador

March 17, 2017

El Tunco is one of those hamlet-grown-into-a-village that are scattered around odd corners of the world, its claim to fame being the waves that crash onto its beach. Well known in the surfing world it is here that many come to play in the waves during the blisteringly hot days. On weekends the assorted travelers are joined by well-heeled Salvadorans who come to party. The narrow street down to the beach is lined with shops selling the usual tourist kitsch among sarongs and beachwear. Bars, cafes and restaurants

have wait staff proffering menus to entice tourists with food and drink. A long line of bars and restaurants line the beach as far as the eye can see. Come sunset the village parties. It booms to music loud enough to rattle window panes and restaurants serve up a constant stream of delicacies as tourists, more domestic than foreign, crowd the tables and line deckchairs on the gray sand.  The pounding surf breaks onto the beach constantly,  the waves rushing to the shore in a constant luminous line.

Sights of Santa Ana

Santa Ana, El Salvador

March 15, 2017

Santa Ana may be the second largest city in El Salvador but even its most bustling moments tick in a low-key sort of way. There is none of the frantic pace that characterizes most large cities and even the drivers seem to be more courteous than many others in cities around the world. At the heart of the city set around the Plaza Libertad are stately buildings of the Cathedral de Santa Ana and the Teatro Nacional. The warm yellow columns and façade of the government building hides battered wooden shutters that look down on a lush inner courtyard but the Archeological museum wears a slick face.  A couple of blocks away is the central market with stalls that spill out onto the streets. The vendors call out to buy mangoes and avocados and jocotes and assorted vegetables. One woman juggles handing out change and piping hot empanadas. Another smiles over her cushion of giant sized needles.

But as daylight wanes they shut down, the stalls wrapped tightly in plastic and tarp. And come nightfall the streets are deserted in the area around the metro centro. Vehicles are few and far between and there is not a single person on foot. The only places that are not locked up tight for the night are the occasional pupuserias.

A short bus ride out of Santa Ana, in the town of Chalchuapa are the Mayan ruins of Tazumal. Excavation work was done mostly in the 1940s and 1950s but large parts of it remain unexcavated to this day. In their wisdom, the original workers plastered over the steps and the sides of the pyramids, successfully ruining the ruins. Underwhelming at best, it takes a bare fifteen minutes to make the circuit and climb the stairs that are accessible.

Next door to the ruins is a large cemetery with hundreds of tombs and we wander among them for a bit. Not surprisingly, many of the graves date to the civil war. Most are family graves, the tombstones bearing the names of several family members. There seems to be no pattern for these graves and they run the gamut from functional ones made of porcelain tiles in all sorts of shapes to elaborate cupolas. Some are so old that the plaster has long fallen victim to time and trees have taken root on the walls and others are as recent as last year. All but the very oldest are lavishly decorated with plastic flowers ribbons and wreaths.

Would You Like to See Our Family Farm?

Ahuachapan, El Slavador

March 13, 2017

It all started with a request to share their table. This was the busy food festival in Concepcion de Ataco over the weekend and all the tables in the eating area were occupied by families and visitors. I needed to find a seat. We said out hellos as they graciously let me share their table and introduced ourselves. Small talk soon turned into a longer conversation and I learned that Mario and Beatrice live in San Salvador but come into Ataco every Sunday to amble through the town, eat at the cafes that spring up over the weekend. Their ten year old son is not quite as enthusiastic about the weekend festival but is delighted to stay at Mario’s brother’s and play with his cousins.

Our conversation continued over the meal as we strolled through town and I was invited for coffee at one of their favorite restaurants. A bit further out from the central plaza, this was quieter with a grand view of the area from its balcony. Mario and Beatrice both come from these parts and Mario remembers helping to harvest coffee on his father’s farm as a child. It was a time when the Ruta de Las Flores was still a dirt road and the buildings in the villages, more rudimentary. The farm still exists but is not an active farm anymore. In fact it is close to the farm that Mario’s brother lives and it is there that they have to go to pick up their son. My interest in the ways of life then and now, no doubt prompted their invitation.

“Would you like to come with us to visit the farm?” they asked.

They had a car and would show me the farm, pick up Mario junior and then drop me off in Juayua where I was staying on their way back to San Salvador. I needed no second urging and promptly accepted.

Up we went along Ruta de las Flores to the town of Ahuachapan. A small detour through town was deemed necessary to show me the sights and soon after we turned off the asphalt. A dirt road stretched out before us lined with small plots with houses. Lines of laundry fluttered in the breeze and some children stopped in their play to stare at the car. A few dogs started to get up to bark but thought the better of it as they no doubt recognized the car. All this area used to be farmed not so long ago they tell me, but many of the farms are now sold. The houses we saw along the road belonged to one such farm before the owner parceled the land into small plots and sold them off.

Soon we turn into a wooden gate and drive up through large empty fields to a sprawling house with tiled roof. Bright yellow and orange painted walls greet a cheery welcome and as we get out stern admonitions are called out to the four dogs that come loping up to the car. The roof extends out over the wrap-around porch and is supported by hand-hewn logs. All the wood came from the property says Mario and this house, now some seventy-five years old was built by his father. Not lived-in anymore, it houses some old furniture and other odds and ends from older generations. To the side is a large reservoir for water. The house sits empty but there is a small cabin-like structure that I presume houses the caretakers. To one side of it is a woodpile where a couple turkeys strut their stuff and a small puppy rolls on the dirt.

The coffee trees had been hit by a plague and it never quite got back to being a working farm since then. Some of the coffee trees still stand surrounded by other trees all over the property. There are mango trees festooned with bunches of mangoes not quite ripe yet. There are trees with those small oval fruits called jocotes and next to it is an avocado tree. My eyes pop out of their sockets as I recognize bunches of starfruit hanging temptingly from another tree. I ask if I can pick one to eat. They laugh to see my enjoyment of this deliciously ripe fruit as with juice dribbling down my chin I reach for another. Before I know it Beatrice has got a plastic bag and they have manage to fill it with starfruit and green mangoes. There are other small buildings on the property. None used now, they sit in this tranquil spot bathed in the rustle of leaves and the chirp of birds. How I would live to spend some time here I said.

“Anytime you want” smiles Mario. Who knows? I may well take him up on his offer.

I meet their son Mario junior as he comes from his uncle’s house. Much as he loves the weekends he spends here, he wants to be a pilot he tells me. Not long after we pile into the car and drive back. Exchanging contact information and phone numbers, I know I will keep in touch.

How lucky am I to yet again to meet with such kindness and generosity. In a country with people as open and friendly as Salvadorans, it probably should not surprise me I suppose but nonetheless it does.

The Delights of Feria Gastronomica

Concepcion de Ataco

El Salvador

March 12, 2017

The small towns and villages that pepper Ruta de las Flores in western El Salvador wear a somnolent air most of the week but come alive on the weekends. The chicken bus that trundles along this scenic route is crowded with locals and a smattering of tourists and is joined by a steady stream of cars as Salvadorians drive in from San Salvador to towns of Juayua and Ataco among others. The weekend Feria Gastronomica and the artesanal markets are in full swing.

Shopfronts lining the cobblestoned streets are festooned with colorful wares and most spill out on the street. Vendors set up shop selling local arts and crafts. Handcrafted wooden toys include slingshots and old fashioned tops. Neat rows of beaded jewelry vie for space with pottery and terracotta. Handmade candles and incense are artistically arranged tempting customers. Stalls near the market are piled with fresh fruits and vegetables and small bags of freshly cut fruits finds eager buyers. Small bands of musicians play at street corners and people stroll along the congested streets. Many of the streets are blocked off to vehicular traffic and temporary tents are set up spreading out from the central park. The tantalizing smell of food perfumes the air and the restaurants do a brisk business at the large covered communal eating area. Children and adults alike delight in quirky rides and line up for treats from the street vendors. Not quite frenetic, this has a mellow feel as I join the throngs in sampling foods and drinks. To my delight there are quite a few that I don’t recognize.

An Invitation

January 15, 2016

Madaba, Jordan

It was a small hole-in-the-wall convenience store cum café that I met him. Gazi and his cousin Odai work there making coffee and dishing out small cups of steaming corn that seems to be wildly popular among the locals. We had chatted when I was in Madaba before and they bade me welcome now that I am here briefly again. Yesterday I was invited to his home and met not only his mother, brother and sister but also his extended family of aunt, uncle, cousins and a hatch full of rabbits.

I was made warmly welcome and had to make a concerted effort to down the glass of tea that kept getting refilled. And then came dinner – several platters were set down on the floor as we sat around it. Beans, greens, stuffed eggplants, french fries, hummus and fresh sliced tomatoes, were all scooped up in bread warmed atop the gas stove. Gazi’s mother is one of those women that can keep one in stitches. I barely understood a fraction of the Arabic she spoke but she has a talent for matching words to actions and had us roaring with laughter.

She is an amazingly talented woman – there were carpets that she had woven on the loom that I admired but there was more. Seeing my interest, she showed me a dozen or more abayyas that she embroidered. The colours, details and workmanship on each of these long dresses is a vision to behold! I was duly trussed into one of them and had to strenuously object to her wanting to make a gift of one.

And she has extracted a promise from me – the next time I visit Jordan, I am to come straight to Madaba and stay in their home. There are five teachers in this extended family and they laughingly told me that they would have me jabbering in Arabic in no time at all. In a country where this kind of hospitality is rarely seen from the tourist trail, it meant all the more to me.

Not Quite a Rum Thing

January 8, 2016

Wadi Rum

Parceled, packaged and sold to tourists as the desert of Lawrence of Arabia, the standard tours to Wadi Rum are a far cry from the romantic image. The shantytown-like feel of the Rum village is left behind as we drive into the desert and it is only from afar that one doesn’t see the garbage strewn dirt roads and the general fly-blown feel. The vague sense of desperation generated by the drought in tourists hangs like a pall and peppers the conversation. There are dozens of camps littering the protected area of Wadi Rum but tourists are few and far between and each camp seems to have just a couple of tourists a day if they are lucky. The four-wheel drive vehicles are just a step away from the scrapheap graveyard but the drivers manage to coax them over inclines with the ease of long practice.

The so-called sites are barely a handful and every tourist-toting vehicle makes the same circuit. The spring that has been renamed Lawrence Spring and the same two rock bridges sees cars come to a halt and disgorge visitors. Despite the hundreds of sand dunes scattered over this area it is the same one, pockmarked with footsteps that we stop at. As the drivers huddle down to tea and a chat, the tourists are expected to dutifully trudge over the sites, climb the soft sand dune and immortalize themselves in plentiful photographs. Selfies are mandatory.

Come sunset, each vehicle totes its cargo of tourists to its camp. Many of the camps remain closed and the ones that are open wear a tattered air. Doors lean drunkenly and carpets that covered the frames either flap in the wind or are missing altogether. A cavernous dining tent that can seat a hundred, now has half dozen visitors a week – on good weeks. Dinner is a mundane affair and at the crack of dawn, after a desultory breakfast, one is whisked back to the village in haste and dumped with a collective washing of hands on part of the tour operators. This is assembly line tourism at its best and not for the faint-hearted. It is standard fare I suppose and I should have known better than to sign up for it. Honed to a fine art, tourism in Jordan may be just the ticket for some but it is far too developed for the likes of me.

But the desert itself stretches out in shades of beige, brown and pale rose tantalizing my senses. There are secrets in this desert begging to be explored. A cleft in the towering rocks called Khazali Siq leads inward in twists and curves and on the walls of the chasm are inscriptions. Some are Thamudic in origin, some are Arabic and some are scrawled in long-forgotten languages. There are pictures as well. They tell tales of men and women and of sheep with long curving horns. One picture shows a man with a bird – hunting with eagles perhaps? The origins of these drawings seem lost in time and our driver could tell us nothing concrete. Rumour has it that the nomadic tribes that roamed these lands drew them.

At another spot in the desert is a flat rock with multiple carvings. Most were of feet, each pair pointing in a specific direction. Some were adult-sized and some child-sized – depicting a family perhaps? Perhaps they showed the route to specific destinations for the caravans and nomad tribes?

The nomadic tribes that once walked through this area are long gone, or so I am told. There are Bedouins here still. They still own camels and goats and sheep but they do not travel with their animals like in the days of old. They live in concrete houses in the Rum village or a permanent tent in the desert. Their tents when in use, have a propane cylinder and a kitchen range and are placed not far from the village. The cell phones need charging so one cannot be too far away, explains the owner. And who can blame them? But these are not quite the nomads of Mongolia or Tibet or even those of Morocco. There are tents in the desert, at the edge of the village and pens with camels and sheep and goats. The tent is occupied minimally, only when caring for the animals. The sheep seem skittish despite their enormous size. I am told that this ram costs as much as a small camel. The goats are less skittish and the camels display a curiosity. One of them follows the owner around like a pet dog.

A part of me wonders how it would be to set off by camel for parts unknown. What a delight it would be to explore at leisure and camp along the way! I have a few days yet. Although past experience has taught me that to do what I have in mind will take many more days than I have, I mean to give a good try.

The Poetry of Petra

Jan 5, 2016

Petra, Jordan

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It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.

The words of John William Burgon written in 1845 evoke images of Petra far better than any I. It is as magical today as it was when this poem was written, indeed as magical as when Petra bustled with the hum of the living more than two thousand years ago.

The origin of Petra is lost in the mists but current theory holds that Arab traders built this city in the fourth or fifth century BC as the capital of the Nabataean empire. Accomplished traders, the Nabataeans grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices and in the first century BC the city flourished. Annexed to the Roman Empire later, Petra continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD destroyed much of the city. The combined effects of the earthquake and new trade routes eventually led to the downfall of the city and by the middle of the seventh century AD Petra seems to have been largely deserted. Forgotten by all but he nomadic Bedouins it remained a secret until 1812 when it was re-discovered by the intrepid Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Following in his footsteps I discover it anew.

The entrance lies along a path lined by tombs and guarded by gigantic stone blocks dedicated to djinns. Walking through the Bab el Siq, the cleft in the multi-colored chasm of rock brings to mind long-forgotten stories. Of caves full of treasures and shouts of “Open Sesame!” Like the stories, these walls weave their own magic as they close in and widen out periodically. There are stories here as well in the carvings, the sculptures and the tombs that lie scattered along the way. Then comes the first glimpse of the Al Khazneh or the Treasury like the parting of a veil it is a secret slowly revealed. Glowing golden in the early morning light it beckons – come, it whispers, come and see.

The chasm widens and continues along what is called the Street of Facades. Further on lies the Roman theater and opposite is the beginning of the long line of Royal Tombs. Small makeshift stalls along the way hold the usual kitsch as the stallholders utter the ubiquitous mantra of “cheap price, cheap price”. The camels, carriages and donkeys led by their owners offering rides to the weary add a colorful and frequently pungent dash. Images of the past mingle with the trill of mobile phones, the babble of languages and click and whirr of cameras.

A trail that lead up to the High place of Sacrifice with its eagle-eye view of the area, and a trail leads down behind it to yet more tombs hidden in the creases of these sandstone hills with fanciful names like the Garden Tomb, Soldier’s Tomb and the Garden Triclinium. Some of the tombs have the empty graves, multiple ones in some cases, long since robbed of their contents. Many are the tombs that have become the homes of the local Bedouins. Fitted with metal doors and decorated with carpets and cushions, these homes are surprisingly cozy.

The city center of old Petra with its colonnaded main street and the remains of the Great Temple and Nymphaeum hark back to Roman days. Further west is the old castle Qasr Al Bint, once a grand structure but mostly in ruins now. Just past it a long steep trail leads to the fairly intact building of what is dubbed the Monastery. Some of the structures have a small holes carved out on the floor – a thread of continuity that carries on. The board game that was played two thousand years ago is still played in this part of the world, albeit by a different name. A few minutes beyond it on the trail is an expansive view of Wadi Araba and the lands to the west.

The long line of Royal Tombs stands in stately grandeur at the eastern end. Elaborately carved, they look imposing as they were meant to, dwarfing the line of stalls and people. All have long been emptied of any treasures but in the waning light of the sun they glow gold and amber.

There are yet plenty of more trails, some trod often and others less so. These sandstone hills are riddled with trails and caves. Some of the caves are now home to the Bedouin, some serve as shelters for their donkeys and herds of sheep. But there are others yet that lie in these hills holding into their secrets yet to be revealed.