Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sushi in Latin America

Big billboard for sushi ... look, colourful. The San Salvador Volcano in the background.

Fifteen years in Latin America and I am still looking for a good place for sushi. In Cuba, I ate at the high-end sushi resturant, Sakura, at the Tocororo restaurant. A very expensive place where I once had a lunch for four people that included scotches, steaks, lobster, cigars and Baileys and it was about $300 or 20 times the average Cuban salary. I heard that the Cuban sushi chefs were trained by personnel from the Japanese Embassy who probably wanted a second place in the country to eat sushi. The waitress told the chef that an Asian was out front so he came out and asked "Parece sushi?" to which I answered, "Si, parece." Roughly translated, he asked if it seemed like sushi and I said yes, it seemed like it. Actually, the fish wasn’t fresh and the rice was so poorly made, I could have made it.

This is one of the problems with sushi - it isn’t about proximity to the ocean, it is about how good the transportation is and the skill and standards of the chef. Cuba is an island and you can have a fish caught 10 miles from the restaurant but by the time it gets there, it won’t be sushi grade. You can find better fish in Kansas City than in Havana. That fish comes out of the ocean after a fight and it has to be gutted and put into ice right away. If it is left on the deck for even a few hours, you don’t want to eat it.

Hand roll ingredients. Looks good but no raw fish!

So that is Cuba. I was in Panama and called the Japanese Embassy to ask where they ate sushi and I was given the name of a place. We went and the sashimi was leaking water on the plate as it defrosted. The chef wasn’t Japanese and he wasn’t trained by a Japanese. The sushi was terrible.

In El Salvador, I ate at a high end place where we sat at low tables in a tatami room. I vaguely remember that the sushi was mediocre (a lot of varieties but nothing really fresh) but I do remember the cockroach that crossed our table. More recently, we have seen the entry of Sushi Itto, a chain out of Mexico, whose sushi is at the level of a North American shopping mall food court or a big supermarket. Pretty amazing that sushi is catching on in a country that still mostly eats rice, beans and corn tortillas. This place is fine if you think Taco Bell is good Mexican food or Papa John’s is good Italian. I would really like to know how many times a Sushi Itto chef has said "No, I won’t use that fish because it isn’t fresh enough." So if you liked the sushi here, I strongly recommend that you see a primer on Japanese culture and sushi at (I’m sorry to say this but this includes you Tracey).

Sushi chefs taking a break in San Benito

Then went to another place called 503 in the Zona Rosa for an all you can eat sushi night (what was I thinking?) and they, shockingly, used Chinese soy sauce! Holy crap ... that is like using ketchup for a spaghetti sauce or a wine cooler in a coq au vin. There is another place run by a Japanese guy called Tanoshi - the food is okay although the fish isn’t great, my maki was popping open on my plate, and it was too expensive.

Lizette modelling a hand roll

I am really left to making it myself. While I am Korean, my parents and I were born in Japan so they know their Japanese food. They spent 30 years there and me, only 3, but I certainly fanned my share of sushi rice for my Mom and my Dad is a semi-professional sushi fish cutter. My rice is pretty good now (and I no longer have to bring the rice from Toronto to Havana in my baggage ... I can now buy it at the Korean restaurant/store in San Salvador or drive to Guatemala City where there is a bigger distributor). We’ve made sushi a few times, either maki with cooked salmon or hand rolls with shrimp, veggies and smoke salmon.

But getting good raw fish? Haven’t seen any yet. I don’t trust anything in any fish market or even by the seashore so I am planning on going fishing next week on my friend Dan’s boat and I will bring a cooler full of ice. He said the Dorado (Mahi-Mahi or Dolphin Fish) are running but I am hoping to catch a small Yellowtail Tuna.

If I do catch some nice fish, I plan to filet it, bag it, and ice it and drive it back into town. When I am back, I will freeze some and give some away to some sushi aficionados that I know who will appreciate it as well as to the chefs of my favourite Thai and Korean restaurants and then I will hold a huge sushi/sashimi party!

Sorry, not many food photos ... I don’t bother when the food is bad. But wait for my next blog on ... Korean food where the planets will align, garlic is melded with chillies, and all will be right with the world.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Buying a Car

Yes, I bought this car. Ain't she a beaut!

I mentioned in a previous blog, there are three types of places to buy cars in El Salvador. First, new from a dealer. Second, used from a dealer. And third, from a private seller. You can find the last category in the newspaper ( has a good on-line site and has a crappy one), on certain streets where sellers gather, or garages/private lots.

We decided to buy a salvaged vehicle from the States because it was the cheapest option, it creates some wealth and employment here, and keeps money away from the rich and greedy owners of the big car dealerships. We met with several sellers and discovered that these guys often charge whatever they think they can get. Now that may make me sound naive but I think it is better to make a fair profit and to charge a fair amount. The one place I went to where the guy asked for a ridiculous amount ($6,000 more than another place for the same car and it even had more miles on it) was full of cars and I wouldn’t trust anything he said to me.

Just about to lose the sunroof. And nice of them to protect the stereo and XM Radio (which doesn't work in El Salvador)

Since I have so many people visiting this winter, I needed a vehicle that could hold 7 people (that would be the three of us with a family of 4 visiting). We looked in the papers and visited some lots and asked around. My friend Chele told me that his friend Vinicio was selling a 2006 Honda Pilot in perfect condition. This SUV seats 8 and has a relatively efficient V-Tec 6 with 40,000 miles on it. The car has leather, XM Radio (which I don’t think works as far south as El Salvador), rear a/c, no ashtray, lots of cupholders and I am hoping inputs for an iPod. We went to see it a week later and it was far from being in perfect condition - it was still completely disassembled. Vinicio was quite frank about the original condition of the car and even gave me photos he took when the car was delivered to him here.

So the vehicle was originally sold by Ralph Shomp Automotive in Littleton, Colorado and was a rollover. No structural damage so I am guessing it slid on some ice and rolled into a ditch with some gravel (there are gravel dimples on one panel). The car was obviously a write-off and instead of being cut up and sold for parts, it was bought at auction and brought down here. Then it was repaired in a shop not owned by Vinicio (which probably increased the cost of repairs somewhat) and was about a month late in completion (which is normal here) from the estimated time. He seemed reasonable although, at one point, he asked for a deposit and I laughed and said no way. That may have bought me a notarized document obligating him to sell the car to me ... but this document would only be enforceable after a few years in court so there was no point.

Nice gravel pebbling.

After the initial repair, he car looked great but the interior finishing wasn’t very good. When the windshield broke, the dashboard and various surfaces got scratched up. This can be sanded and painted to look like new. Also, the centre armrest was scuffed so I asked them to reupholster (they do a great job with leather in this country). The one unfortunate part was they had to replace the roof and they couldn’t get one with a sunroof so the interior fit isn’t as good as it could be.

I had the chasis laser checked and an alignment done. Another mechanic checked the engine and compression and all that is good. The tires are good - not the same but the front two and the back two match. The one point of contention was the fact that it came with only one keyless remote. I asked them to provide two keys and two remotes but they said it would be too expensive. They said it normally costs $250 but they could get me one for $150. I checked online and they are $75 shipped to Canada. I also spoke with my mechanic and he said that the dealer here (again with the Grupo Q) charges a lot but he said that he knows businesses that do keys and program transponders and keyless entry so it should be a lot more reasonable. BTW, the guy is a good and honest mechanic if you need someone. He’ll drive to your place, drive off with your car, and bring it back fixed. He just fixed the bumper on the Sentra and changed a belt and belt tensor for $50 all-in ($20 for 2-3 hours of labour).

All the windows and tailouts gone, rust starting to form.

They fixed the dash and most of the interior but they said that they couldn’t do anything more with the interior ceiling. It still had the lower front section where the sunroof and hardware went - they just inserted some foam and recovered the whole thing with new cloth. I really didn’t like having the lower ceiling (and less headroom) for no reason so negotiated with them to re-do it. Vinicio’s partner Luis said that their budget was so tight they couldn’t do it and was acting pissed off at how picky I was being. The thing is, we saw two other cars that were rebuilt and they were perfect - you couldn’t tell that they had ever been in an accident. So I told Luis that if he had another buyer, to sell it to them. He said he didn’t but called his interior guy and found out that the new ceiling was only $80 so I told him I would pay it.

Bondo, expertly applied.

That was Thursday and they said the car would be ready by Saturday. I spoke to them on Saturday and asked to see the car but they said it was put away and they couldn’t get it until Monday. Then they did something strange - they said that they wanted me to be ready to pay for the car on Monday morning and they didn’t want any more complications from me and said that I could do all the insurance stuff after the transfer. I got pissed off since I have been patiently waiting and they were a month late from their original date. I told him that I wouldn’t close until everything was to my satisfaction and the insurance was in place. Frankly, I was ready to walk away.

Monday morning comes by and no car and no call. I call them at 11:00 and Vinicio says they are having problems with the upholsterer and they’ll get back to me. He actually apologized for putting pressure on me to close when he turned out to not be able to do so. I called again on Tuesday morning and he said he was on his way to the shop and they were hoping to bring the car around noon. No car, no call.

MJ demonstrating the vehicle in the bodyshop.
At this point, I didn’t feel any obligation to buy the car. Unless it is perfect (or close to), I was going elsewhere. I guess this is the tradeoff that I picked - I have guys who are relatively new to this business (this is only their 5th car) so they are charging me less but the work isn’t as good and it certainly isn’t being done efficiently.
Well, after two days of no calls, I was guessing that they had problems with the last repairs or were trying to sell to another buyer. But I got a call early Wednesday saying the car was ready. Surprisingly, it was! The interior ceiling was redone and looked much better. There were still a few things that were off - like the vanity mirror lights which had not been working and then were working were, again, not working. Turns out that the upholsterer did a bad job the first time around so they made him do it again and it took a couple of days.

In the paint and finishing shop ... starting to look better.

We brought it to the insurance company inspection centre and there was no line-up and it was done in 20 minutes. I got a nice mug of coffee (and got to keep the mug) and was told the car was fine but that the front airbags were turned off after the side curtain bags deployed during the rollover and I would have to get this reset by Honda. Then off to the insurance agent Edgardo Cordova at Tecni Seguros who completed the paperwork in about 15 minutes and I was insured. Edgardo speaks perfect English and I highly recommend that you go to him for your insurance needs (health, auto and home). He gave me quotes and policy comparisons from 5 different companies and I was able to insure the Pilot for $518 per year with no deductible if I use the company’s repair shop. Edgardo can be reached at Incidentally, by using an agent, we saved a lot of money. We are paying a lot less for the Honda than we did when we got our then two year old Sentra insured.

Still some scratches and damage from the broken windshield and roll-over.

Then back to the apartment to pick up Fatima who had gone to the bank to get a certified cheque and then to Metro Sur Mall to meet at a notary to do the bill of sale. That cost $12 and they will register it with the government and give us the ownership card for $15 with a governmental fee of $29.

So after some minor hassles, we have a nice newish car that seats 8. The experience wasn’t bad although it did require some patience and I had to be able to walk away from the deal if they couldn’t deliver what was promised. There is a 3 month warranty but I don’t know if they will want to do any more work for the price. They are now working on a 2007 Honda CR-V if anyone is in the market for a vehicle.

The finished product.

The last owner left a CD of The Blackthorn Project "The Bluing of the Sky" so if you know anyone in Littleton Colorado who rolled over a Pilot, ask them if they want their CD back.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

GSBS Relief and Aid Trip

Thanks for everyone who has contributed money to Good Smoke Bad Smoke!

Thank you to Darren, Brenda & Sean, Jeff & Kath, Tracy & Chris, Ian, Caroline and Mom & Dad in their and Misa's name for sending the money. And thanks to Rob, Jin, Warren, Tom, Pierre, Rey and Yung Suk for agreeing to send money which I look forward to getting soon.

That is a commitment for about USD1,150!

I heard from my friend Eric that his housekeeper’s (Maria) family’s pueblo was badly hit by the storm. I also found out that the seven homes in the little community all cooked with wood so this was a perfect opportunity to both provide a gas stove and to help in disaster relief.

My son Elliot was visiting and he wanted to help so went back to the store ACACSA (Asociacion Cooperativa de Ahorro Credito y Comercializacion Salvadoreana de R.L.) and told the cashier that I had purchased a stove there a week before and wanted to speak to the manager or owner. She had a suspicious look on her face and asked why. When I told her that I wanted to buy ten stoves for hurricane relief, her expression changed completely and she called the manager down. It took a while but he finally came down and I explained that I wanted to buy at least ten stoves and could they give me a discount or maybe a free stove or two. He said he had to ask upstairs first. I thought they might give a volume discount but didn’t think the disaster relief argument would work but ... they came back and said they would reduce the price! In the end, I saved $35 dollars and was able to get 10 stoves for $300. They also gave us some free water to drink! I got them to agree to this price if I could get the money to buy more stoves. Thank you ACACSA!
The guys at ACACSA checking and packing the stoves.
So speaking to Eric and Lizette, we agreed to head out to the pueblo on Saturday. Elliot was down for only 4 days but he thought this was something he wanted to do (instead of going to the beach to surf or to the countryside to do a zip-line trip). Lizette had a contact at Tropigas and asked for a deal for us so we looked all set.
25 lbs of Maseca, 40 lbs of beans, 40 lbs of rice, a few pounds of candy and 5 gallons of cooking oil. And garlic ... can't make beans without garlic.

Saturday morning was a little complicated since Fatima had to go to three different places for work. MJ dropped her off for her first class and then I had to run out to pick up some car parts for Cuba that were brought in the night before from Guatemala. The guy delivering them went off a highway under construction in Santa Ana and flew 25' down a ditch ripping the axles off the bottom of his newish pick-up truck. He was able to climb out of the ditch with the part in his hand and was brought to a hospital in San Salvador.
Elliot, Angel and Maria Jose loading the truck.

Then rush home to wake up Elliot and head to Pricesmart (the Costco here) to buy rice, beans, corn flour, oil and some candy for the kids. Then head over to Eric’s where we were going to leave from. Lizette went with Angel (Eric’s driver) to get her father’s pick-up. There was some debate whether I should take my Sentra or not but we decided on the two pick-ups. Then we had rush over to where Fatima was so she could take the car to her next studio class. There was a bit of a delay so we didn’t get picked up and on the road until 11:30 and the traffic was really bad. We had to head to the big Tropigas depot in Soyapango to get the tanks before they closed at noon. We didn’t make it on time but they called Lizette who told them that we were fighting traffic to get there as soon as possible.

Sara at Tropigas kept the office open late for us on Saturday.

I was in one truck with Angel, Elliot and MJ and he took a bunch of back streets to get there faster and Sara was kind enough to wait for us before she left for the day. They agreed to sell us 10 tanks, regulators, hoses and clams for $35.50 each so we saved about $8 per unit from the regular price. That’s more than I expected. One problem was they thought I was going to pay by cash or cheque on pick-up but I thought I was going to be invoiced and could pay later at a bank. A few calls were made and they agreed to wait until Monday for payment.

So we loaded up the tanks into the pick-up and then met up with Eric who was in his truck with Lizette, Maria and the two rug rats. We headed past Illopango and turned north at San Martin on the road to Suchitoto (a lovely old town on a volcanic lake that has some lovely inns and restaurants). About halfway there, we turned right at an unmarked dirt path. Then bumpy roads covered in rubble with deep ruts carved by tons of rushing water. Up and down hills and around blind corners, the occasional unpainted house made of cinder blocks showing through light forested areas on the slopes of some big hills.
No road!

Then we turned a corner and the road dropped sharply down to a sandy area and ... no road. Instead a wide shallow river where a road and a stream used to be. It was probably originally about 15' wide but now was about 60' wide. You could see where the storm tore away at its banks and made a wide flood plain. Luckily, another pick up truck was in front of us and we saw where he drove through so we knew which way to go. And very luckily, I didn’t bring the Sentra which couldn’t have made it through there.

We crossed and started heading up and up and up. Some very sharp inclines with the mostly dirt and stone road cut through some thick rock, mostly single lane, with a lot of erosion from the rains. We were going up one of many steep sections when Eric, driving in front, came face to face with an old school bus coming down! We both had to back up until we found spots where we could safely stop to allow the bus to pass. We were on a slope with a lot of rubble and the bus came down past us and started sliding sideways towards us! Angel gave it the gun and we got past it without scratching Lizette’s Dad’s brand new turbo diesel Hilux.

Pulling up to the last of the road ... and a closed education centre.

Carrying the 50 lb propane tanks down to the pueblo

After about 15 minutes of hills, we finally got to a small settlement that looked to be abandoned. We overshot the turn but Maria backed us up and we turned left up another dirt and unmarked path. Only a few minutes and we stopped at a "Save the Children" education centre. A few minutes later, some kids showed up and I asked them if this was their school and they said no. I asked if it was still open and they said no. Too bad, the funding must have ended.
The kids bringing down the stoves!

We had come as far as we could by truck and Maria went to tell her family that we had arrived. Oddly, I was getting great cell phone service in the middle of nowhere. About a dozen people arrived and they started carrying down the stoves, propane tanks, food, and donations of clothing, shoes and toys. The little kids picked up the stoves and some very small and slight women took the 50 lb tanks on their heads! Through a tiny gate and down a sandy path and then down a very steep dirt incline through some trees that had seen tons of water flowing down from the storm and ending at Maria’s mother’s house.
Lizette with a stove and me with rice, beans and oil heading to the pueblo

Pacita previously had a small house with a three (?) room house made of adobe. After the storm, she was down to one room which was missing one wall completely and had no door on the other wall. I touched one of the half crumpled walls and the dried mud crumbled in my fingers. They had one bed and a few plastic chairs in the one room that Pacita and her four children shared. Maria, the eldest, lived and worked at Eric’s house going home on the occasional weekend. Pacita’s husband was defending their little community from a gang and was killed for it.
What is left of Paz' adobe house ... one room and one bed for her and her four kids

I explained that I had some great friends living abroad that contributed money to help them out. I explained that the gas stoves were easier to use, would improve the air quality in their houses, reduce pollution, eliminate the need for them to cut and carry wood, and reduce deforestation. Pacita, who was speaking for her community thanked me and said that it was wonderful that people outside would help them out. She told me that two president’s ago, the government had a program where they could register for housing aid. So they paid $80 to register and never heard from anyone again! I asked her if they cut their own wood and she said that they actually bought it and spent $0.25 a day. This is more than the gas would cost. The gas costs $5.10 and will last from 5 to 8 weeks.
The rest of the food stuffs coming down the path ... most of the bags weigh 40 lbs

I also took out the rice, beans, corn flour, oil and candies and asked Pacita to distribute it evenly and fairly in her community based on need. Most people in the country are able to grow most of the food they need - beans and corn and sometimes rice. What they can’t grow they can trade for. I asked Pacita where her fields were and she said some miles away. She would grow crops and give about 20% to the landowner in rent. But this season, the entire crop was ruined. I think the 40 lbs of beans, 40 lbs of rice, 25 lbs of corn flower, and 5 gallons of oil will last the 7 households about a week (the oil longer of course), depending on the size of the households and there were a lot of kids around. I don’t know what they are going to do when this food and their savings run out but I will follow up through Angel and Maria and will bring more food out if necessary. They had almost nothing! They do have electricity but not all the time. I didn’t see any other furniture that had survived but for some homemade tables made from bamboo and an old fridge. I didn’t see any toys and or TVs. I am sure they could use everything and anything.

Eric connecting the hose ... but that's what she said

Eric suggested that I set up one tank so they would know how to do it. Pacita said Jose was handy so I showed him how to hook up the hoses and put on the clamps. I asked Pacita where she cooked and she took me to the back where there was an in-tact cooking room - tiny and dark, about 5' x 6', and despite just having some embers going, was filled with smoke! There didn’t seem to be any vents for the smoke to escape and I couldn’t imagine what it was like when she was actually cooking. We hooked up the system and using some matches, I lit all the burners as we all cheered.

Old cooking system ...
new cooking system!

They did have quite a bit construction materials purchased over the years - narrow cinder blocks and some terra cotta roof tiles. The storm scattered a lot of it but they dug it out and cleared the area. They need maybe $2,000 for the concrete, rebar (absolutely necessary in this earthquake prone country), and manpower to build the house. I think Eric is raising funds for this and his parent’s church in L.A. are taking up a special offering for the community. I don't think this pueblo is getting any aid from the government or any organization.
Maria, head sandwich maker. Her little sister, head sandwich nosher.

Lizette brought food to make sandwiches and we all had lunch together.

Group photo! Jose beside me, Maria in front of him in green, mom Paz seated beside her, Angel with the blue cap with MJ, Eric and Elliot to his left.

After a group picture, I got assurances that the stoves would be shared out and the food divided fairly and we climbed the hill for the last time. All the kids and Pacita came up with us and I asked how many times the kids climbed the hill each day and they said about 8 to 10 times. All the gringos were winded from the one trip! Pile into the trucks and back out to the main road.

The last climb for us for the day. Eric and MJ coming up.

Thanks again for all your contributions. And if you come down to visit, pack and extra bag with everything. Thanks to the guys at ACACSA and Sara and Elizabeth at Tropigas. Thanks for Angel for driving and helping with the planning. Thanks for Lizette and Eric for introducing me to these people and for arranging for the gas and the vehicles for the trip. Thanks for Elliot and MJ for helping out and taking pictures.
If anyone else wants to donate, USD65 or CAD70 will purchase one gas stove, tank and hardware and can help one family enormously. Please contact me by E-mail.

After doing this, I feel great but now I feel like I have an emotional investment in this community, Canton de San Francisco de Candelaria or the Municipality of Saint Frances of the Candelmas. Big name, tiny pueblo, big hearts.

Some videos of our trip out of the Canton.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Hurricane Damage

Fairways at the Corinto golf club covered in mud and debris
after Hurricane Ida's rain storm

Hurricane Ida has taken around 140 lives with 60 still missing and damaged or destroyed 1,600 homes leaving about 14,000 homeless. Many of these people don’t have insurance but hopefully the socialist government will help to rebuild their homes.

Our Good Smoke Bad Smoke campaign has raised $700! Thanks to everyone who contributed and I hope we’ll be smoking a Cuban cigar soon. I am debating if I should take half the money and buy 10 stoves (with valves, hoses and clamps) to donate to a local charity collecting for disaster relief. Certainly there is a need for them but it may be as or more important to get these stoves into homes cooking with wood - you have to be pretty poor to be using wood.

I just received photos of the Club Salvadorena Corinto Golf Club. The place is in Illopango and has a few holes alongside the big volcanic lake. Not a tragedy like demolished villages but a huge amount of damages with some heavy flooding and numerous fairways being covered by tons of boulders and mud. Luckily no loss of life amongst the staff. I’ve included some pictures on the power of flash floods. I heard it may take a year to fix the course and will cost an enormous amount of money.

With all of this news, I forgot to mention some big news. Lonely Planet has picked El Salvador as one of the top ten destinations for 2010! What, don’t believe me? Go to

Ironically, LP just dropped El Salvador from their guidebook series but my friend, Paige Penland, is just finishing up one for Norton’s Great Destinations so stay tuned on that.

El Salvador will recover from this and I hope this winter is a great season for tourism. I personally am hosting 10 visitors and hope to get another 15 or so. My son is coming down on Thursday and we are hoping to do a little surfing and some golfing and lots of good eating and drinking. Maybe some zip lining or canyon jumping. Will let you know.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hurricane Ida

It is now 48 hours after Hurricane Ida passed by Nicaragua and Honduras and managed to dump an enormous amount of rain on El Salvador. We knew that we were going to get some rain but no one had any idea of how much and this is probably why no alerts went out to vulnerable areas. This storm, at the tail end of a very quiet hurricane season, took us all by surprise.

On Saturday night we had driven out to the wedding of a friend’s daughter at their restaurant between Soyapango and Illopango. It had been raining off and on all for most of the day and there was a light drizzle on the way there. When we got there, it was raining very heavily and we debated whether to wait in the car until it had passed but after five minutes, it didn’t seem to be diminishing so we opened our umbrellas and managed to get in without getting too wet. We expected the rain to pass by but it kept raining and raining. People kept arriving and some didn’t have umbrellas and they were soaked from running the short distance from their parked cars. The music was playing quite loudly but I recall hearing the rain come down in some occasionally heavy bursts.

We left early at 11:00 and had to gingerly step to the car through water gushing down the street. MJ was driving since Fatima and I had had several drinks. The rain was continuing to come down very hard cutting down on visibility and when we got to the Carretera Panamericana there was a lot of flooding. MJ was kind of freaked out but Fatima and I have had a lot of experience driving through flooded streets after more than a decade in Havana. Fatima told her to drive down the middle of the road and I told her to keep a lot of space between us and the car in front in case we hit a deep pool and had to gun the engine through. A car can get through pretty deep water as long as the water doesn’t crest over the hood and flood the air intake and as long as you keep revving the engine so the water doesn’t go up the tailpipe.

We were making good progress and most vehicles were driving sensibly (except for the occasional idiot who was speeding and honking and passing cars). On the long hill up towards Soyapango on the opposite side of the highway, there was a lot of water coming down so cars and buses were having problems going upstream. We were heading down so it was a lot easier and no real problems until we hit the Molsa maiz plant. It is on the top of a big hill and there is a big, landscaped retaining wall about 40' high and a lot of it had come down and blocked 2-3 lanes of the road. What looked to be a small drainage pipe in the middle of the wall had become a huge hole and water was gushing through it. We were able to squeeze past the boulders and broken concrete and mounds of dirt to the other side. We drove slowly the rest of the way home and planned our route to stay on high ground. Still, you can’t avoid hills in San Salvador and there were many places where a the runoff turned roads into streams.

San Salvador and El Salvador is a country of volcanoes and valleys. The city itself is in the middle of several volcanoes and people live in the valleys, up the sides of some of the hills, and sometimes on top. Expansion is limited so some communities grow organically or planned developments are established in less than ideal areas. These would be at the bases of earth hills or near some of the streams and rivers that comprise some of the water runoffs in the city.

I think these pictures (from LA PRENSA/Salomón Vásquez) are of the

Rio Lempa that come down from San Vicente to the Costa del Sol.

Combine this with poor public announcements and tragedies like this will occur. I was watching TV on Saturday night and didn’t see any warnings of flash flooding. Mind you, in some of the poorer communities that were worst affected, they may not have had TV’s to watch.

Rio Lempa (I think) exiting into the Pacific at Costa del Sol

So far, over a hundred people have perished. Most of the deaths occurred in San Salvador and San Vicente which is east of the city. Flash flooding and mudslides took out several towns and communities, affecting both the very poor and very rich. Small huts and large weekend villas were destroyed.

Yesterday, the rains were lighter and the day was calm but for the police helicopters landing and taking off from behind our condo. And today is a beautiful sunny day.

This morning in San Salvador, beautiful and sunny

One of the girls working in our house lives in Illopango which is a municipality around the very large volcanic lake. Luckily she is on higher ground, like most people, and wasn’t affected except for a leaky roof. She did say that the rains flood the hills and it all pours into the lake and then the drainage stream floods out but the people living nearby know that is going to happen so they take precautions.

Those less fortunate had their houses flooded or swept away. In the ultimate definition of losing "everything", some people not only lost their homes but the land beneath them. What do you do when the pretty little stream near your house turns into a raging river that takes away your house and everything you own and when you get back, there isn’t even any land to rebuild on? Well, you get a bit of help and get on with it.

The definition of losing "everything"

I have had some great responses from my Good Smoke Bad Smoke mini-campaign. Some people with the American Legion (who will be out in full force for the Veteran’s Day celebration in El Salvador this week) are interested in the idea and may get involved. So please send those funds to me and I’ll go out and buy a bunch of stoves and we’ll get them out to some of the affected areas.

On a final note, don't think that El Salvador is a disaster ridden third world country. Sure we have the occasional natural disaster (hurricanes and earthquakes) but this is a beautiful country full of resilient people. I hope no one is dissuaded from visiting this amazing country. So far I have Elliot, Rene, Nancy, Nad, Deb, Jeff and family coming down this winter. I hope everyone else thinking about it will come down too.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Havana and Back to San Salvador

John preparing to whiff on a ball
I had my first visitor of the year! John came down from Ottawa to visit his kids in Guate and took the bus over to San Salvador. We got in two rounds of golf at Veraneras and ate some fine meals. I took him to the Mercado Antiguo Cuscutlan - the very local market/restaurant/bar that serves all the interesting local stuff. He had the seafood soup and loved it. We asked what was the base of the stock, expecting to be told that it was boiled fish heads and bones with lots of shrimp and lobster shells ... but sadly, my favourite waitress brought out a package of Knorr Mariscada soup base!
Then off to Cuba for a business for a week and had a pretty good time. Havana is a great place for tourists to visit but not as nice if you have to live there. That goes for both the Cubans and the foreigners living there. Two of my friends lost the plates for their car when their companies weren’t renewed (this happened to two cars of mine a few years ago). There is also a lot of nervousness verging on panic due to the new restrictions of the repatriation of funds. The Government is doing it because they have no money but this has also meant that there is very little new money coming into the country ... except for American companies who were in town for the Havana International Fair. It boggles the mind that some companies still think that they can come to Cuba with deep pockets, sell products to Cuba with very thin margins, develop good relations, and then sell long term. If you are one of these companies, good luck!
Outdoor dining area at the Club Habana - see the container ship and
the Cuban National Sailing Team on the horizon

Highlights of the trip would be going to El Aljibe and being driven by a beautiful diplomat in her beautiful 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee which is like being in a Rolls in any other country. Then meeting a friend at the Jazz Café on Paseo and being allowed in without paying the cover and seeing Irakere playing with a visiting Japanese kick ass percussionist. Then knocking back Glenfiddich at $2.50 for a long pour until the bottle was empty. Walking home along the Malecon at 3:00 in the morning with beers in hand.

Rene and me enjoying single malts and cigars while the Grammy winning jazz group Irakere plays 30 feet away.

My Cuban friend from Toronto was down visiting his sister who had just had a baby so I met him in Havana with 400 diapers bought at the Costco in San Salvador. Handily, he had rented a car (a tiny little Hyundai that looked like a toy. It was so narrow that our elbows were touching) so he helped out with some party purchases. We went to a store around Calzada and D and I asked for 60 cans of beers. There was one woman at the cooler cashier and she, and a 7 year old girl, loaded the beers into some empty cases. You can imagine how long this took and the lineup that developed behind us. A woman waiting started chatting with us and tried to get us to buy some nice yucca she had. Another woman, who I think worked at the store, came over to see what was going on and asked if we were having a party and if she could come. As pretty as she was, I didn’t think that that was a good idea.
Poaching lobster in butter. Actually, more like deep frying.
Then served in a delicious taco.

I was able to get 40 lobster tails but no cabbage. Grilled some tails with some red snappers on a charcoal bbq on my terrace. Delish. Then did butter poached lobster with homemade refried beans on a flour tortilla with fresh pico de gallo with cilantro. Double delish. Dominoes and salsa to round out the night. The partying got a bit away from us since I went over around 1:00 pm and we started drinking beer and Don Julio tequila and we didn’t stop until 1:00 am.

A light dinner in Havana

Coming back was a bit hectic as I had to fly through San Jose and Guatemala City on the way home to El Salvador. I did this to avoid a long stop over in SJO and also because Guate has a great duty-free store. They always have a buy one and the second one is half price deal going on. I have seen this for tequillas and champagnes and this time it was for whiskey and perfume.
A whack of Johnny Blue and stuff for only $210 in Guatemala.
Hope it isn't all Chinese knock-offs!

Arriving in San Salvador, it was hot and humid but great to be home. I told the guy at immigration that my residency card was still pending an investigation (of exactly what the heck I actually do in this country ... which is mostly cook and play golf) and I didn’t know the status. He was kind enough to leave his desk to go to an office to find out and found out that my card was ready for pick up so I saved the $10 for the tourist card. I had called about 7 times previously and there was either no answer or was transferred and put on ignore. I went to the office a few days later, paid fee on top of fee on top of fee (is this a new Funes thing?), and then was told to come back the next week to get the card. I told the officer that I was told the card was ready but it turns out that either the system or the card making machine was down. Oh well, trip 4 coming up.

So back at home I asked the caregiver for my Mother-in-law how she was and she tells me "mal". I ask her why and she said that her 4 year old son has bronchial asthma and she couldn’t take him to the hospital because she was working. I said fine but why didn’t his caregiver take him in and she said she left money to do so but it didn’t happen. I asked how he was now and she said better and that he only needs some pills that always help. I asked her what they were and she mentioned ampicillin - and I asked how many pills she buys and she said 2 or 3! So I explained how dangerous that was and how that it could make her son more ill by only partially taking out whatever bacterial infection he had while leaving the stronger ones to keep on growing. So I told her that she had to listen to the doctor or ask the pharmacist what was the minimum dosage she had to follow. I am thinking about her son’s asthma and asked her if she cooks with gas or wood in her house - and she says wood! Gas is heavily subsidized here so it will only cost about $5 a month ... but then again, wood is free and if you don’t have the $5, you are going to use wood even though everyone, from a recent University of Berkeley report to illiterate countryfolk, know that it is bad for their children’s health. So I spoke to Fatima and we are going to give her a countertop gas range and her first tank as part of her Christmas bonus.

After this conversation, I am feeling a little better and head off to they gym. Fatima drops me off and I work out and then walk back. One of the two regular guards lets me in and I ask, again "como estas?" He says fine and asks how I am and I say "bien" and he answers "como siempre." That means "like always" and obviously, there are a few ways of taking that. I take it to mean that I am a foreigner with money and don’t have a care in the world.

So the caregiver brought her son to the local public hospital and he was admitted and they gave him a 7 day cycle of antibiotics and she knows to use all 7 pills. Fatima and I went shopping and got a 4 burner gas cooker, tubing, clamps and a valve for about $40 in total. The first tank will cost about $25 so for $65, we just drastically improved the air quality of a family of 6. I am going to send this E-mail out to everyone who regularly gets cigars from me and, if they ever want to see another free cigar, they will donate US$65.00 to my new "Good smoke, bad smoke" campaign. How ironic that one good Cuban cigar can cost $75 while $65 can improve a family’s life.

Yes, MJ is that skinny - size 0 dress.
And yes, I am that fat - tipping over 190.

My stepdaughter MJ recently graduated from law school and we attended the ceremony. She is at the Jesuit run University of Central America. I have always said that El Salvador has a very interesting and very long national anthem. Now I have proof!

The proof!
What official choir anywhere in the world needs to have the words to their anthem in front of them? Only El Salvador! Anyways, the ceremony was interesting and she looked great. Several months ago, she entrusted me with the task of buying her graduation dress in Canada. Now this is a pretty big deal so I ended up buying four different dresses to give her a pick.

MJ shaking hands with some important dude.

I think she wore the right one - she ended up on the cover of the UCA supplement in the Prensa Grafica today. She was nervous because she was the first one on the stage to accept her degree. She did a great job, didn't fall off her 4 inch heels, and looked very confident and composed. Afterwards, we went home and cooked for a cocktail party for all her friends. We had Mojitos and Cosmos, champagne, veggie dips with hummus and babaganoush, bacon wrapped chicken in a sweet chilli glaze, twice baked potatoes with bacon, cheese, and sour cream, chicken wings, and little salmon mousse and cucumber sandwiches. Later, they all headed off to a club called Envy.

We are in the midst of a lot of rain due to Tropical Storm Ida blowing past neighbouring Nicaragua and Honduras. Ironically, we are at the end of the hurricane season and Cuba has escaped clean this year ... but Ida may yet turn into a hurricane and hit Pinar del Rio. We should be having sunny dry days but we seem to be getting more rain now than we had in normally wet October.

Off to a wedding this evening. It is my good friend’s daughter who has decided, at the age of 21, that it would be a good idea to get married. She hasn’t finished school yet and her boyfriend is working but they will have to live with his parents until she starts working and they can afford to rent their own place. Naturally, my friend is not overjoyed with this decision. We bought a nice crystal vase at Portico and then thought a bunch of gift certificates to local restaurants would be a good idea (to give the couple the chance to get out of the house for some dinners). Sushi Ito didn’t have them but Chiles, Bennigans and Los Cebollines (Mexican) did. But get this, while all of them had gift certificates, none of the restaurants actually had any on site. They all said I had to drive to their main offices to get them. W T F. I spoke to the Chiles manager and asked him if thought it was reasonable to have me drive across town in bad traffic and in the rain to give him $60. He didn’t think so and disappeared and came back with some certificates! Bennigans basically blew me off and said I could go to the office or not get them. The Los Cebollines guy said that I could order them and come back to pick them up but this wouldn’t work for us so we got him to make the request to his office to have them delivered to another restaurant nearer to us ... so hopefully we will be able to get them en route to the wedding. It is being held in the bride’s mom’s cantina bar! Specializing in cheap cold beer and boquitas - small snacks such as fried tortillas with fresh cheese and avocado and deep fried chunks of pork! Now that’s wedding food.

A bit about El Salvador ... big news is that 12 Arena (right wing) Assemblymen have gone "independent" which means they can and probably will vote for the FMLN (left wing former guerillas in the civil war). Now why would they cross the floor and give the Frente a majority in the Assembly allowing them to pass a lot more initiatives? Word on the street is that the former president, Tony Saca, is being investigated for corruption and this deal will guarantee that he won’t be prosecuted. Hmm, maybe that is why Tony’s cousin led this little rebellion.