Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Rainy Season

Nearing the end of the rainy season and it has been pretty dry ... until Tropical Depression 12-E formed off the coast of Guatemala. Then it meandered up into Mexico, then a bit south, and then into the Gulf of Mexico.

All that time, it continued to drop rain and more rain. We are on our fifth day of solid rain - not continuous but almost. Enough rain to cause 24 deaths, 14,000 persons displaced to shelters, a national state of emergency, and the destruction of 30% of the corn and bean harvest.

On the news, I saw a Government Minister asking people to bring donations of food to the CIFCO Convention Centre. There was a warehouse filling with foodstuffs, beds, water tanks. I asked a friend if he was going to donate and mentioned that I wanted to do something and he told me that most of those donations would be stolen or “lost” and sold at the side of the road in a few months.

The largest grocery chain publicized that they had made a large donation for disaster relief and asked people to drop off food at donation boxes in their stores. Hmm, so they want people to buy food at their stores with their regular mark-up to donate. Making money from a disaster.

Rivers that are normally low enough to wade through are now 20'+ high and overflowing their banks.

I ended up at Pricesmart with the intention of buying bulk bags of rice and beans with no idea of how it would end up with people who needed it the most. Luckily, a perky young Pricesmart saleswoman came up to me with a clipboard and asked if I was interested in donating needed goods. She mentioned that Pricesmart had reduced the cost of certain food products to encourage people to purchase and donate. I said I was very interested but I didn’t want to take it with me and asked if I could buy it and leave it with them to take care of. She said that she didn’t know about that but would ask her manager later and I asked if she could get an answer now. Then she came back with a young high-school volunteer who said I could buy the food and leave it with their organization. So we got another cart and loaded up two bulk bags of rice and two of beans. The red beans were $17 for the bag but the same amount of black beans were only $10. We got into a debate of which would be better and the woman said that Salvadorans much preferred red beans while the kid said that this was aid food so they would eat anything if they were hungry. We got the red beans. Then some bulk packs of pasta for the kids and then two large bags of candies.

Someone else had three shopping carts full of rice, beans and oil. Another woman who looked to be a concerned liberal American had dragged her less enthusiastic Salvadoran husband to the store to get aid food and was checking out the pallets of rice and beans.

The woman said that Pricesmart guaranteed that the food would get to people in need - which was nice since I would be pissed and they would burn in hell if the food ended up on their shelves to be sold again.

Paid for the stuff and brought it outside where it was still pouring rain and left it with a group of high school students who were with some aid group. So I feel better having done something. But I wonder what is happening out there. There are maybe 14,000 people in shelters who need to be fed. There are maybe a few hundred families who have lost their home. Thousands have had damage or loss of property. And many thousands have had their crops severely damaged and may only have food for part of next year.

This is what a mudslide looks like. Nice house beside a tree covered hill until the rains won't stop.

My sister-in-law came by this morning to visit. Her husband is a civil engineer and works for Fovial, the national road works department. As you can imagine, they are working 24 hours a day clearing hundreds of land slides and repairing many bridges that have come down. I asked her about how aid was distributed and if she knew if much was stolen. She said she didn’t and I asked how I could contribute in a way that the aid would get to where it was supposed to. And unfortunately, she didn’t know, probably because they were not in the position to give much to charity.

So I lamented on how tough it was that people were in shelters and lost their crops and how many people would go hungry. I asked her what was going to happen in 6 to 8 months as these families ran out of food, if the government or any organization would help them. She said no, that they would have to get additional jobs if they could find them and maybe turn their kids over to orphanages. I don’t understand how a country where an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is a popular and not uncommon car can allow people to go hungry. And she looked at me and shook her head and gave me a smile like she was talking to a child and said that this is how it has always been in this country.

The road from San Salvador to the Libertad port and beach. Most of the main highways in the country are partially closed with landslides and fallen trees.

Ugh, it’s pouring again! My friend in Antigua is starting to get very depressed from all this rain and lack of sun. I’m lucky that I got 8 weeks in Toronto this summer and just had a week in Havana so I don’t have the weight of all this rain on my head. Another friend from Havana was on business in San Salvador for the week and flew back on Saturday. Havana has done quite well for not having hurricanes this season - they all seem to fling northward after getting as far as PR or Haiti - but now 12-E is following Richard back to Havana and Cuba may see their first hurricane of the year and from the opposite direction than normal!

Nice to see that Salvadorans are helping each other and there are more and more donation points for food and clothes and household items. It is day 6 and still raining and now it is blowing hard. Rain is almost constant switching from a light drizzle to a hard downpour to a gusty blowing diagonal rain.

Most of the schools were closed this week to keep kids off the somewhat dangerous roads and to reduce the level of traffic. I saw two unusual things happen on the roads this week, both times from the window from my gym at the top of Escalon at the Masferrer roundabout. A guy was driving up the street and seemed to stall his car in the left lane. I imagined that he would back up into one of the many parking lots on the right hand side of the road. Instead, he backed up about twenty feet and then turned sharply into the curb blocking both up-hill lanes. Then he got out of the car to try to push his vehicle (uphill with the wheels sharply turned) into a U-turn across all four lanes of traffic. Wow. Amazingly, an old Beetle stopped and two guys got out of the car and pushed the guy through his U-turn so that he could drive down hill and, I suppose, jump start his car (although he could have done this in reverse down the hill without doing a U-turn).
The tail security vehicle stopped by the fallen motorcycle cop. You can see the main convoy at the top of the circle.

The other strange thing happened when President Funes motorcade came blasting up Jerusalem from his office. They take several different routes from his office and usually have 4 - 5 motorcycle cops who drive ahead to block roads and 3 - 4 vehicles with security and the Presidente. So a motorcycle cop comes up into the roundabout, heads down hill in the circle to block the traffic coming up Escalon. This is a very badly designed roundabout and is the scene of much honking and many accidents. The main problem is that the ingress roads into the circle approach and then turn sharply right so people tend to stop and block traffic instead of entering the circle and then merging normally. Another entry point has really tight curbs so cars and trucks routinely collide causing complete traffic chaos as a main artery is blocked for up to an hour while the cops and insurance investigators work the scene. Okay, so yesterday during the rain, the motorcycle cop stops in front of the cars entering from Escalon, puts up his hand, and a woman nails him and drives over the motorcycle. The trailing motorcycle cops stop to check on him and then the first security vehicle. What looks like Funes SUV pulls up and they check out the guy and he looks okay and they can’t be sitting around like that so they take off to the residence. The last security vehicle stops and guys with very big guns get out of it. They secure the scene stopping all traffic and then pick up the guy who looks to have at least a broken leg and they load him into the back seat to take to the hospital.

The injured officer being loaded into the security truck.

Lots of different cops show up, some army guys take a look, traffic investigators arrive and the poor woman who hit the cop is in big trouble! A while later, some family members arrive and there is a lot of huddling in the rain. The bike is left there for more than an hour until Channel 2 arrives. The driver stops the car beside the crashed vehicles, gets out with a camera and starts shooting the scene. Of course this blocks all the traffic going through so the guy in the passenger seat jumps out and runs around to get into the car to move it. The camera man walks around the car and this is when the cops decide to pull the motorcycle from under the car. Lots of interviews ensue. Another day on San Salvador’s roads.

Over an hour after the accident, finally moving the motorcycle when the TV crew shows up - they are at the top left interviewing the investigators under the pink umbrella.

Hope this rain stops soon! And good luck to Cuba.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Driving in El Salvador

The last time traffic at the El Salvador del Mundo roundabout was light ... about 50 years ago.

I have been driving in El Salvador now for about four years and, knock on wood, no accidents yet. Some important pointers - make sure you have insurance with roadside assistance. If you do have an accident, be cautious of where you are and what time it is. If someone runs into you from behind, you may want to stay in your car and signal them to follow you to a place where there are lights and guards - a police station is ideal or otherwise a gas station or other business establishment with lots of light and traffic. On the other hand, it may be important to have the insurance guys look at the accident in situ but only do that during the day when there are lots of cars around.

Situational awareness is very important. Driving at night, stopping at a traffic light, keep a watch around your car. If someone comes up to you, don’t hesitate to drive away. The cops are pretty lenient about running reds at night. Windows up and doors locked in any dodgy areas.

You are pretty safe in most of El Salvador except for at night in certain bad areas such as Apopa, Soyapango, and maybe El Centro. Don’t go into these areas unless you have to and try not to go at night. The main thoroughfares usually have cops but avoid getting deep into these areas.

A GPS is a good idea - see You may want to buy a cheap Garmin Nuvi in the U.S. or Canada and then have Ben Quan put the El Salvador and Guatemala maps onto it (either directly or he can put it onto an SD chip). I think he charges $150 for the map program. The GPS is pretty good although when making a long trip, try to confirm the route with a map. On a recent post, I mentioned that we had it set on “shortest distance” and it took us through the mountains.

Driving in San Salvador may appear crazy to you (unless you are from Boston) but you’ll get used to it. In round-abouts, drivers in the left lane may try to cut right and drivers in the right lane routinely cut left. Expect the unexpected and a signal (or lack thereof) means nothing. Some of the crazier things I’ve seen is someone backing down the middle of a two lane highway because she missed her turn off to Sonsonate. There were two full lanes and a shoulder but she drove backwards between the two lanes. When I honked at her, she acted surprised.

Also, on the turn off to Santa Elena beside Multiplaza, there is a exit lane on the left. Cars will routinely drive along the adjacent lane and then cut in at the end. This is normal. What is bizarre is that cars will drive two lanes to the right and then cut in on the people trying to cut in.

Another good rule is that you have to drive aggressively in San Salvador to get anywhere but you should always drive cautiously in the countryside to avoid accidents. I saw two nasty ones on two consecutive trips out to the golf course. The first one was on the new highway that goes from the road up from Lourdes/Santa Ana to Santa Tecla. They have opened a ramp going out to the roundabout in Merliot so you can take the great, empty 3 lane highway into the city. I was driving in with a friend when I saw a small white van in the middle of the road. We get out and the driver said that he was driving along when two racing cars cut in front of him. He hit the breaks and spun but then hit a dark speed bump (watch for those at the end of the road) and tipped over. We tried to lift the van up but couldn’t. Another driver stopped and the four of us managed to get it right side up ... and the driver started it and drove away.

The next night, we were driving down the hill from Santa Tecla towards Lourdes. About half a mile down as it was getting really twisty, the brakes on the truck seem to fail. They were locking up and the truck was sliding. Then we turned a corner and saw two people beside a dropped motorcycle waving at us. We pulled over and realized that the entire two lanes were covered in some kind of oil - we suspected used cooking oil being transported for recycling. We were on a bad spot on the road so we moved the bike and the people down the hill a ways. The truck was almost rammed by an oil tanker but he was able to slow down and get his truck under control. We ended up loading the bike into the truck bed and driving the couple back up to Santa Tecla to an ISS hospital. The driver seemed okay but his wife had taken some bad scrapes and started crying in the car, probably from the shock and the pain. On the way there, we first had to go down the hill (to the U-turn area) and two SUVs were approaching us, driving too fast. One slowed down and locked his wheels and the other almost rammed into him. We called the cops to report it but by the time we dropped the couple off and made it back to the spot, there were no cops and, luckily, no other accidents. Then we saw some cop cars with sirens on heading to the spot.

This brings up another point. Should you stop to assist accident victims? It depends on where and when. If it is at night, you should be careful because someone may rob you and steal your car. My friend is an armed ex-cop so he always stops. People will also fake accidents to get people to stop although I don’t think this is that common anymore.

I have received two tickets in my four years of driving. The first time, I was heading to the airport doing about 110 kms/hr. I was following a fast motorcycle and watching for radar traps. I slowed down after cresting a hill but he blew past the box factory and a cop jumped out and flagged me down. He said that I was driving way too fast (that spot had a 60 km limit) and my infraction was very serious. He asked me if it was okay for him to give me a $50 ticket. I didn’t realize he was asking if I wanted to make a discounted payment on the spot so I said I guess it was okay for him to give me the ticket. Still, in hindsight, I’d rather pay the ticket than to bribe a cop.

The second ticket I got was for crossing a double yellow line. Escalon has a double yellow line running up it and hundreds of cars cross that every hour. In my case, I was with my parents and we were lost and I crossed a three lane road and a cop was right there and chased me down. I said that I didn’t see any signs saying no left turns and he said that you can never cross a double yellow line. I think that I deserved that ticket and I realized that you can get away with a shit-load of bad, stupid, inconsiderate driving but not when what you do is dangerous - and crossing three lanes of heavy traffic was pretty stupid.

If this is freaking you out, try to restrict your driving to Saturday afternoons or all day Sunday. Very little traffic and a nice way to see the city!

Monday, June 13, 2011

More of what’s been going on.

Casa Garufina at Playa Azul

I watched a CBS Sunday Morning feature on the Blogisphere and they mentioned that the vast majority of blogs get dropped after a short period … and felt rather guilty about neglecting my little site. So here I am!

El Salvador has been pretty calm lately. The rainy season has started but it hasn’t been too bad. Enough rain to get the fields green but not so much that there is ground saturation and potential flooding. The Veraneras golf course is still in great shape and we may have good conditions through July (before it gets too wet and muddy to get a cart through).

I had 16 people come and visit (in 4 groups) and it was great to see my friends but a bit tiring – especially with some GI issues and the fact that 3 groups overlapped over the course of about a month. Will have to plan breaks next time.

Some of my friends have really fallen in love with El Salvador and we are looking at a way for them to work remotely from here for a month or two each winter. With great internet connections, very cheap calls to Canada, Skype and instant messaging, and decent (albeit expensive) courier service, it would be very easy to work from here if your type of job allows for it.

It was great to host people in our condo and do day trips to the beach for surfing, or golfing, or excursions like zip-lining or up to the coffee plantations. Also eating out can be very reasonable as well as hitting some nice bars and lounges.

And since most people flew down on Taca (which allows 2 x 50 lb bags), I was able to put in orders for lots of stuff to be brought down. Oh, I also packed 3 suitcases full of stuff from Ikea and donations of clothing which I left with friends to bring down.

Our first look at the beach house.

Another group came down and rented a fantastic beach house. Probably one of the nicest ones in the entire country. 6 bedrooms all with en suite washrooms, incredible outdoor deck, lovely staff, all the coconuts you could drink, and an amazing beach. The place is called Casa Garifuna and it is on Playa Azul just west of Acajutla on the coastal road heading to Guatemala.

They have a great beach that is close to the one used by the Decameron Resort so there are quite a few Canadians around during the winter as well as cops on ATVs going up and down watching out for tourists. There is a fishing camp nearby and lots of boats going in and out right in front of the beach house. We helped them carry their boat in one time – there were ten of them and my friend and I lended a hand and I almost put my back out with the incredible weight of the boat! But we were able to buy very fresh red snappers from them which we grilled on our charcoal bbq and it was delicious.

Fresh red snapper, grilled on charcoal

Their trip was great … except 7 out of 9 of them came down with severe stomach issues. I am not sure if it was something they brought down with them or if it was food poisoning but it was spreading from person to person. I tried to be very careful about the washing of fruits and vegetables but they still got very sick. I felt terrible about this especially since they were unable to do many of the things they had planned.

We also had an adventure … that bordered on the incredible/terrifying. We left the beach house in two vehicles (my Honda Pilot and a rented Jeep) with two GPS devices. We programmed in Tacuba where we were going to meet up with Manolo of Impossible Tours for a hike through Parque Impossible to the waterfalls. BTW, if you have Paige’s guide book “El Salvador, A Great Destination”, the telephone number for Manolo (and his parent’s cool hostel) is incorrect. The number in the book is of a competitor that may inform you that Manolo’s business is closed – the correct number is 2417-4268.

We speak to Manolo and agree that it will take us about 80 minutes to get there … and then we follow the GPS. We made two major mistakes on this trip. First, we had the GPS set to shortest route rather than fastest, and we embarked on our trip without cross checking the GPS route with a map. So as we hit the main road, we turned left instead of right. On the right was a perfectly paved road that would allow us to blast up to Jujutla, Ataco, Ahuachapan and then Tacuba. On the left was a road that was paved … and then went to dirt … and then back to pave. It looked like a plausible road to us until it went to dirt and cobblestones and then we hit the hills. Very steep with switchbacks and giant boulders and climbing over stones and under fallen trees. All other cars and buses disappeared and we were out there with some farmers, passed horses, passed a pig washing station (a guy with a hose spraying down two big hos), and passed a lot of people with surprised expressions on their faces.

Nearing the end of our drive through the mountain jungle.

For the longest time, we thought that we would hit the main road again and be on our way. Monolo kept calling us asking where we were and how far away. Finally he had to let the tour go (there were two impatient Germans waiting for us to arrive) and we agreed to do something else once we got to his place.

Manolo guiding us down to the hot springs - all the therapuetic mud you want!

So up and down mountains, squeezing between rocks, driving past precipices, hoping that we would hit civilization before we came to a dead end. We should have turned back but we didn’t and kept driving for about an hour until finally we hit a road, saw some other cars, then houses and then a town! We broke through the countryside at Ataco and finally made it to Tacuba. Manolo was very cool about us being late and asked why we were so late. We showed him the route and he was incredulous. He said that they sometimes take dirt bikes through there but never trucks. I would have taken some pictures if I wasn't so busy trying to keep us alive. So instead of hiking through Parque Impossible, we drove through it.

Manolo showing us coffee plants.

We decompressed with some beers and then Manolo organized a trip to the nearby hotsprings and coffee plantation. The hotsprings feed some giant pools and they also use the steam and geothermic energy to process the coffee. It was off season so we just walked through seeing some early buds and some people doing some weeding. We drove to Ahuachapan to see where the coffee was being roasted and processed. Very high quality organic beans with three sorting systems (mechanical, computer and then by hand). We bought several pounds of it to take home.

Green coffee beans being sorted for the European market.

Okay, that’s enough for now … will try to post again soon.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Explorer's Guides - El Salvador: A Great Destination

My friend Paige has published her new book "El Salvador: A Great Destination", available at or Amazon. Ideal for anyone who wants to visit El Salvador.

Now who would want to visit El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America? Aren't there more interesting countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil? How about Columbia which is ascending, or Cuba, Guatemala or Costa Rica?

El Salvador has bits of those places but is very unique as well. It is not an established tourism destination so the people are still very friendly and interested in meeting foreigners. And that is a refreshing difference from being given a fake smile as they calculate how much they are going to rip you off for. The food is unique and interesting - lots of seafood, lots of fresh vegetables, and lots of strange but tasty fruit.

The beaches are gorgeous and often empty. Waves are great for trying out surfing. The roads are the best in the region and you can zip from one place to another at full speed.

The city is big and modern and has hundreds of options for going out, eating, clubbing, shopping, art & culture. With some common sense precautions, it is also as safe as Toronto. It is also a very inexpensive place to stay and for recreation. A bottle of Absolut vodka and mixes in a vip lounge will be about $50. Good hospitals and medical care. Get your teeth cleaned by a real dentist for $25. Want a keratin hair straightener? $500 in Toronto, $120 in San Salvador.

The weather from November to April is fantastic (and much better than Cuba in December and January) with lots of sunshine and little to no rain.

Paige's book includes some great details about the history of this small country and the successes they have had in building a peaceful and more egalitarian society. She also includes lots of details on culture and interesting places to visit.

Lastly, she includes solid information on how to stay safe and where to watch out.
Paige is a very experienced traveller. She is also smart, observant and an excellent writer. Her personal observations fill the book and you woud do well to follow her opinions.

I have been fortunate to have had a bunch of friends visit from Canada. Every one of them wants to come back and I hope to build beach houses for them all.

Direct flights from Toronto, Montreal, L.A., Houston, Atlanta, Miami, and D.C. Connecting flights through hubs in those cities.
Come and visit!