Tuesday, June 14, 2016

El Salvador and Guatemala

Wading in the cold waters of Lake Atitlan
While the flow of my friends willing to visit me has reduced to a trickle, there are still some people who are curious about Central America. My old friend Stefan from my early years in Havana has been more recently posted to Buenos Aires and Brazilia where I have visited him about 5 times in the past few years. 
Kids jumping off the big pig at Tunco
The sheer weight of guilt finally pushed him to book tickets, with the lovely and charming Mary, through Panama to Monsignor Romero International Airport in Comalapa, El Salvador.
Chillin in Tunco
It was nice to have friends visiting who had no preconceived ideas of this country. We did most of the usual things including a day out at Tunco eating lots of amazingly fresh clams and oysters. 
Stefan zipping through space
Also a day out in the west doing the awesome ziplining at Apaneca, dropping into Juayua for the food fair, and then racing over to Tazumal before it closed early on the Sunday. We actually got there after they closed the ticket booth but they still let us in for a quick walk around the temple. Very nice of them.

Great food and ambiance at the Welton in Antigua
I think I must be a real Guanaco now because I now agree with the locals that a must see, when visiting El Salvador, is Antigua, Guatemala. Okay, but really, this whole region used to be one country so it isn’t so wrong to see that the areas are related. 
Pollo Campero on the road to Antigua
We drove to Antigua for a night and had a wonderful meal at the Welton. This place has been producing great meals with great service and charming ambience for years. We were hoping to sit by the rose petal strewn pool but they had just cleaned it but our table was covered in the petals.
At the Ocelot Bar? Cool Aussie bartender making us lots of cocktails.
We spent the night in the very nice Hotel Antigua: very central and very rustic but the rooms have all been redone so it is very quiet and comfortable. Also very reasonable and they do a nice breakfast in the mornings – either the fruit, cereal and toast included in the meal or the cooked breakfast that is a bit extra.

Michael sharing his cigar friendly places in Antigua
Also hung out with Michael who told us of the very few places you could have a drink, hang out and smoke a cigar! Since this is very forbidden in Antigua, I won’t mention where we did it. But at one place, we received no complaints, staff was very cool, and we handed out some Habanos to some Americans who said the cigars smelled really good.
Who needs bridges?
We also took the opportunity to drive to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. We used my wobbly GPS and Fatima’s recollection from a bus trip she took many years ago ... and started off. Through fields of produce and out into the country, we hit a very winding stretch that got quite dodgy quite quickly. We came upon a collapsed bridge and wondered what to do until we saw on-coming cars driving through the river bed. No worries with the Honda Pilot. But up steep roads, blind curves, small land slides and almost no traffic! I was thinking that the town must be really tiny and beers must be $5 each if the trucks have to drive this road to get up there.
Hanging out in Panajachel
We finally arrive and Panajachel is quite big with hundreds of cars and we got lost trying to find our accommodations at Jessica’s River Bed and Breakfast. Very cute property and tiny but cozy rooms all done in wood. We got lucky as our stay coincided with the weekly breakfast in the garden. A great spread of local and international breakfast foods. The people were also quite interesting and met some some gingoes who had driven from Guatemala City ... and who told me that there is a giant multi lane highway coming in from the north and west (we went south and east) and some interesting folks from NYC who were down buying Guatemalan crafted goods for sale in their boutique.
A beautiful Lake Atitlan (click to enlarge)
Okay, why am I talking about that when I should be mentioning that Lake Atitlan is gorgeous! A huge glittering lake, hundreds of metres deep, brilliantly clear and surrounded by volcanoes high up in the air. It was a joy sitting at the lake side restaurants, even if they were tourist traps, looking out onto the lake. We decided that we didn’t need to order the extravagant meals they had on offer and found places that would allow us to drink beers and smoke cigars and to order the luncheon specials with the small, but very fresh and delicious, fish lunches.
Purple jade from street vendors in Panajahel
At every turn we were approached by the locals who wanted to sell us artisanal goods. Lots of it was lovely and we bought what we could. A friend of mine from Canada had asked me to buy purple jade. The stores in Antigua were asking $100 for a tiny piece. The stores in Panajachel were asking $50.  But on the streets, I was buying big pendants of pink and purple jade for about $10 to $20 each. Got some great stuff.
Mary enjoying (and not sharing) her pasta as Stefan looks hungrily on
We went out for dinner and took some local advice and ended up eating some rather mediocre food. Actually, Fatima, Stefan and I had a pretty average soup and pizza dinner while Mary had what looked like amazing pasta but she wasn’t sharing with us since we all looked so hungry and would have devoured her entire dinner.

Antigua amongst the volacanoes
We took the highway route back to Antigua and it was super fast and a lot safer but it was a lot farther so it took about the same amount of time and was certainly a lot less interesting. Once back in Antigua, we had more time so we did a big walk around town to the Merced church, to the textile museum, to the big ruins, and then to the market. 
The markets of Antigua
I did not know that there is a market behind the market behind the market. We went in really deep and it was very interesting with lots of stuff being sold that we didn’t see up front. We bought lots of pepitos (pumpkin seeds) as they were a third of the price in San Salvador. 
Smoking cigars and drinking cocktails inside!
We had dinner at a very crowded traditional Guatemalan restaurant just off the main square. The food was very good but they purposefully charged us for two bottles of wine instead of one. We caught it and made it clear that we were quite annoyed with them. I hate when they try to rip off tourists but it happens everywhere.

The next day we had a leisurely breakfast at out hotel, Los Olivos I think? The rooms were quite interesting as you would enter into a small living room with the washroom and a TV. Then up stairs to a landing with a giant bed and a big TV. No windows up there but a skylight. Everything looked to be constructed with giant wooden beans and foot thick blocks of stone but that wasn’t the case as Stefan was kept up by a late check in and lots of thumping from next door. More walking around town and hanging around with Michael who gave me another gem of local knowledge.

Wonton noodle soup in Central America!
A new Chinese restaurant that served really good food including  wonton noodle soup! This is the Holy Grail (or noodle bowl) of Chinese food for me, having grown up on it in the Chinatown in Toronto. I had high expectations and it was really great. Perhaps not perfect noodles but they threw a bunch of giant shrimps on top, even with a bunch of fat shrimp filled wontons, so I was happy.
The ruins in Antigua (click to enlarge)
Back on the highway and passed maybe a total of 10 Guatemalan police check points but we were not stopped by a single one. Across the border at Chinamas and five minutes later, I am stopped by the Salvadoran police! I got out of the car and told him that I had spent three days driving in Guatemala and wasn’t stopped once and I drive a few miles into my own country and I get stopped. He laughed, took a quick look into the back of my SUV and told me that I could go. I think they, and the customs at the border, were looking for people transporting goods for sale in El Salvador.
Touring Tazumel
Last night was smoking cigars and drinking awesome artisanal pints at the Cadejo bar in the Zona Rosa and my friends jetted off back to Brazilia.
Other things they really enjoyed in ES? Very authentic and delicious Korean food at the Pabelion Coreano in Merliot. Also spent a night on the Paseo del Carmen walking up and down the street. They have this big food area towards the end which had dozens of stands selling all kinds of delicious foods. Too bad we had eaten so we couldn’t try everything we wanted to. I bought a cool CBGB Tshirt and we ended up at Thekla Bar which had a four piece female indy band that seemed to tune up for about twice as long as they played.

Part three of the atomic bomb. Boom!
The bar has an interesting shooter drink list so Stefan made the classic mistake, only second to starting a land war in Asia, of challenging a Korean to a drinking contest. A few hours later, we both clearly had enough. I think it was the Atomic Bomb that was a three level drink. Pull out the shot of Jack Daniels and knock it back. It dislodges a shot of Jaeger that falls into a glass of Red bull, Pulling that out dislodges a Baileys layered over Jamesons that falls into a stout, and then choke that back and burp. Ugh!

Grilled leeks, steaks and sausages, and a big salad on the beach.
Spent one night at the beach at a friend’s house. Nice to have a bbq and then walk along the ocean while the tide was out. Cigars and rum into the night and Stefan slept outside on the deck, listening to the waves all night. 

Stefan and the ladies saying goodbye to the sun
El Salvador is a very small country going through a difficult period with its gangs and crime but it is also a very beautiful country full of happy, hard-working and hopeful people. Come and visit.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Murder and Crime in El Salvador

I suppose I can't have a blog about El Salvador without mentioning the crime. When I have visitors coming down, I tell them not to Google "El Salvador".

You'll come up with articles like the recent one in the LA Times saying that San Salvador is the murder capital of the world. This is based on the number of murders per capita. But almost half of all murders are between gangs and involve 15 to 29 year old males living in four areas of the country: San Salvador, La Lib, Soyapango and Usulutan.

But the vast vast majority of people who visit never have any problems and really love the country and the people. Of the many Latin American capitals I have visited, the nice bits of San Salvador are very clean and orderly and it feels like a much smaller town. Friends of mine from Guatemala and Colombia have said that they would move here if they had the chance.

I happen to think that life here is very peaceful and quiet. Perhaps this is because I live in a bubble in San Benito. I can walk down to the Zona Rosa for some excellent beer at the Cadejo Bar. I pass the Taiwanese Embassy, the American School, and the Hilton so there is lots of security in the area. I shop and entertain in Escalon, Santa Elena and Santa Tecla, also safe areas. My elderly parents visited for two months and walked almost every morning to the Parque Maquilishuat, about 15 minutes away.

Walking in public was something a foreigner (or gringo) couldn’t do a few years ago due to all the kidnappings but now it is very common to see people out with their dogs or jogging.

But how to reconcile this with the number of murders in this country – 14 to 17 a day? The vast majority occurs within the gangs and in a few dangerous areas. A lot of these gang members have been deported from the US where they learned their gang skills. They come to ES and end up with the gangs as that is what they know. Plus there is a job shortage in this country and most of the jobs pay terribly.

I have been asking people if they feel it is getting better or worse here compared to five years ago. The answer I am getting is that the crime situation is worse. I ask what that opinion was based on:  were they victims of crime or perhaps their friends or family members were. The answer to that is “no” but they say crime is worse because of they see it in the news. Now like the rest of Latin America, the media outlets (TV, radio and newspapers) are controlled by the wealthy right wing elite. Of course they report on sensationalist issues like crime as that is what sells but they also report on crime to discredit the left wing government.  I think that is what is going on here because the vast majority of Salvadorans are peaceful and want to live in peace.

But gangs have ingrained themselves into the society here and I have read that up to 85% of all businesses pay “renta” or a protection fee. It can be as low as $40 a month for a taxi driver or $100 for a small restaurant but almost everyone pays. For most businesses, it is better to pay each month than to have a waitress killed. I know a huge food company that pays in every neighbourhood where they deliver and sell their product.

So how to stop the problem with the renta when it is easier to pay than not? I know a very honest and hard working woman who opened up a small cafeteria and was paying the renta but had to close her businesses because too many Maras were coming in for free meals. This is an unusual case because the Maras, parasites in this society, are usually smart enough not to ruin their host.

I know one night club where the owner has stood up to the Maras, once kicking out a bunch of them who had stripped down to show their gang tattoos. They came back with 15 guys with guns and the owner stood up to them with three security guys with shotguns.  The Maras said they would be back and he told them that they already were back and that he was ready. The Maras just swore at him and backed out, wanting a softer and easier target. It is possible to stand up to them.

The Maras are also expanding in isolated areas, preying on fincas to the point that it isn’t safe for the owners to go out to their own properties. Clearly this has to be stopped as well. I heard the Government recently received $750M to fight crime and to develop programs to divert young kids from gangs. There is also a new tax on cell phone usage which is to be used for this initiative. I hope they can turn the corner on this problem.

This just in ... Industria La Constancia has just suspended it's Agua Cristal water bottling and distribution system claiming that there is too much crime and it is dangerous for its workers. My first thought was, great, they are refusing to pay the "renta" or extortion fees to the gangs and this will pressure the government to act and that someone had to stand up against the gangs and why not one of the biggest companies in the country. La Constancia is also the main brewer in this country and is owned by SABMiller. Then looking into this a bit further, it looks like Agua Cristal has suspended operations because their water source was running low and the government refused to let them move into another area with limited water resources. The company seems to be trying to strong arm the government to make decisions that will benefit the company while hurting the local population. Plus, this may be part of the right wing initiative to discredit the current government saying that they cannot provide a safe business environment. But why would a huge multinational company like SABMiller get involved in local politics? Or am I being naive by asking that question?

We have had two empty 5 gallon bottles of water outside our door for the past few days and no one has swapped the for full ones. Looks like we are going to have to switch to a competitor until Agua Cristal decides to restart their plant.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Havana and Brasilia

Black flags are down and the Stars and Stripes are up.
Lots more restaurants, bars and lounges in Havana. Not that many changes related to the new rapprochement between Raul and Barack except for this flag making an appearance on the Malecon for the first time in many years. More tourists coming down with the relaxed Treasury Department rules but the embargo is still in place until Congress agrees to lift it so it will probably be around for several more years. Pointers for American tourists:  as a pedestrian, you don’t have the right away so watch out; if you find a date, check their ID (which they will always have on hand or nearby as they will have serious problems if they get asked by a cop) to make sure they are 18 years old; people will be smoking almost everywhere and I am not going to put out my cigar on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant even during the meal; and the more friendly cashiers are with you, the more likely they are ripping you off.

They have a cruise ship that comes twice a week disgorging a boat load of tourists hungry for souvenirs. Those are the days you should avoid Habana Vieja. My friend who works at the Lonja de Comercio across from the cruise ship terminal told me that on those days, there is no water in the afternoon in his building!

Notable new places? Walter the Italian chef with the big pipes (ostensibly from kneeding pizza and pasta dough) opened up a new place located in Miramar called Nero Di Seppia. He proudly gave me a tour of the kitchen which has a wood burning oven and a cold room for salad prep. He showed me a box of ingredients he just got from Italy including anchovies and fresh buffalo mozzarella. How does he do it? I had the Pizza Diablo with extra garlic ... delicious as always. I think we had a party of 26 for Ian’s birthday and they managed to seat us in the front garden and the lovely waitresses got the food out to us super fast. Not that we minded waiting ... we had beers and cigars to while away the time.

The new place across from 304
304 O’Reilly continues to thrive with their great cocktails, solidly cooked food, great art and a funky vibe. They have finished renovations across the street and will have a bigger bar and lounge.

I checked out a place called Habana 61 on Calle Habana e/Cuarteles y Pena Pobre which is close to the edge of Habana Vieja near the Museo de Revolucion.  Very cool and modern place inside which juxtaposed greatly with the typical Old Havana neighbourhood outside. The food was quite good, especially this seafood plate that came with grilled fish, octopus, lobster and shrimp.

On my last trip, we had trouble getting seated at some of our favourite restaurants. Starbien wouldn't seat us outside since they had a reservation for 20 on the front porch. We managed to squeeze around the table in the garden so we could smoke cigars. That party never showed up but the upstairs was filled with older American tourists who couldn't leave without taking pictures of everything and talking very loudly, disturbing our dinner. Then they piled into a bunch of old cars whose Cuban drivers happily blared their novelty horns several times before setting off. Ugh.

Not telling where you can find this.
Very happily, my favourite restaurant hasn't made any of the main travel lists and, blissfully, has tables whenever I go by. I realized that this was my favourite restaurant in the world when I was sitting there, drinking a cold beer, chewing on my favourite pizza, knowing I would have an espresso, a shot of rum, and a cigar afterwards.

Managed to make it to Brasilia twice last year. Why the capital and not the cooler Rio or Salvador de Bahia? Well, because Stefan and Mary moved there. I was there as much to hang out with them as to see a country.  Not that Rio isn’t a mind blowingly beautiful and cool city but Brasilia is pretty cool too. Kind of like Brasil-Lite. Less traffic, less crime, lots of parking, and fewer visible minorities. What does that mean? Well, a decently organized city full of great architecture, big open spaces, lots of great food, and still in a giant country where you can drive to small towns and picturesque nature sites.

Click on the image for a larger view
The Don Bosco Cathedral was an amazing building to visit. All the walls are made up of glass panes from Murano, Venice. An incredibly beautiful and spiritual chapel to visit.
Coming out the entrance of the national cathedral
Ministry of Justice
Walking around the downtown government area was quite interesting and the architecture was amazing. This shiny building was may favourite - the Ministry of Justice I think. Brazilia is pretty high up so the clouds always were quite close and they reflected beautifully in the glass.

Of course what I wanted the most was to eat and drink. We shopped at the bizarrely empty Sam’s Club on a early Saturday morning and got the big three Brazilian products: cachaca, beef and Havaianas. Also hit the big farmers market where we picked up some amazingly fresh veggies and fruit. Also artisanal cheeses and hot sauces and spices like star anise. We also took the opportunity to snack on tapioca wraps. Very interesting cooking method – they take dried tapioca powder and put it on an electric grill until it melts and forms a crunchy and chewy pancake. Then they fill it with whatever you want – I picked cheese and Canadian bacon. Very delicious but very filling. Then Stefan insisted I have a fresh empanada and I got a deep fried one with beef and gravy inside .... also delicious and ready to be rolled into the car.

There was, of course, good sushi in Brasilia. I have pretty much given up on sushi in Latin America.  There are so many ways that it can be done badly. In Cuba, when the kitchen is 30 degrees, they send the sushi out hot. In Panama, they served me sashimi that was still melting on my plate leaving it in a puddle. In Quito, they claimed that the sushi chefs were properly trained but the rolls came out bizarrely compressed and hard. In Bogota, the chefs received one week of training and didn’t actually have a clear idea of what sushi was about. And in El Salvador, bring on the cream cheese and mayo! But Brasil, with its sizeable Japanese population, they know what they are doing.

One of the many kilo restaurants I went to.
Other notable dining places ... I really enjoyed the kilo restaurants. You load up your food from a huge buffet and pay by the weight. I usually took all the arugula, added some shrimps and some chicharrones.

The female president of Korea was in town visiting the female president of Brazil. We stood around for a while watching the honorary guard practising their maneuvers. Nice to see the Korean flag flying all over.
We made it to one churrascaria but frankly, it is just way too much food for me to enjoy. I want to try everything but then I end of eating too much and feeling ill. Quite a silly way of trying to enjoy food.

Stefan asked for a complimentary shot of cachaca for me and they gave me triple!
Also managed to drive a few hours out of town to various country restaurants that featured large buffets of local foods along with coffee, cinnamon milk, or aguardiente to finish the meal.
Hotdogs, bacon, cheese and potato crisps, all in one little package.

Fried quails and cold beer!
Not much in the way of street food but I did go to the most popular hotdog stand which featured grilled dogs with real bacon bits and crispy potato sticks. I should also mention the restaurant that kindly set up a table on the street so we could enjoy deep fried quails, icy cold beer, and cigars.

Power shopping
Also made it out to the Premium Outlet Mall about an hour outside of the city. They have lots of great shops representing some of Brazil’s best retailers. With the local currency being very weak right now, the bargains were even greater. Hitting all the shops takes about 3 hours moving at a fairly brisk pace but they have a good food court with interesting Brazilian food like Acai ice cream and little cheese buns.

I bought lots of clothes and purses for Fatima and was ably assisted by Mary, a former model, who was always willing to try on outfits.

Old Havana crew
Had the chance to catch up with some old friends from Havana. Anthony, the Reuters correspondent, and his lovely wife Fiona came for a BBQ.

My friend Shania taught me how to make Moqueca. An amazing fish stew from her home town of Bahia made with coconut milk, palm hearts, lime juice, parsley and Dende (red palm seed) oil. I make it every few weeks in San Salvador now.

Hoping to return to Brazilia with Fatima in a few months. It isn't Rio but it is still Brazil and full of great food and people.