Cultural Immersion Trip to El Salvador: Part II

This continues our series on the Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE) trip to El Salvador. You can read Part I here.

Global Awareness Through Experience

Cultural Immersion Trip to El Salvador

Day 2

4:50 p.m.

woman with basket
Woman carrying goods on her head in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the earthquake in Guatemala today, it measured 6.8. I’m writing to let you know all is well with us. The earthquake was a big one, and we felt it here, but we are okay and there are no immediate signs of damage in the city. I’ll write more later about our experiences. It was quite a day!

8:05 p.m.

It was a full day, indeed! But first, rewind….

Our neighborhood is very interesting. While there are local, family-run businesses right outside our hotel door, just two blocks away is a major shopping district with an enormous mall. The road is Blvd. De Los Heroes, and is very busy. It has nearly any American-type fast food place you can think of. So last night for dinner we went for a meal together at Pizza Hut, believe it or not! What’s especially funny is none of us got pizza. Our group leader was craving the salads served there….often you must doubt the safety of salads or fresh veggies and fruits for our un-acclimated tummies. Others in the group had pasta and quesadillas, and it was all very good. What struck me about the experience, though, is that the restaurant was filled with local families eating pizza and breadsticks and drinking soda.

Sometimes you have to go a world away to realize how alike we all are.

Last night Sister Karen, my roommate, arrived with a priest who is also part of our group. Sister Karen carried with her a second suitcase filled with vitamins that will go to women and children in the area. We are so grateful that all of the donations arrived safely and without question! Our GATE trip leader says there are so many vitamins that we may be able to separate them into three parts so three different groups will benefit. They make them go a long way, she says. Karen was exhausted, and I was too, so we went to bed without any sort of naughtiness. However, she arose late in the night and stubbed her toe on the step to the bathroom. She said, ¨It only hurts when I genuflect.¨

I spent a significant amount of time wondering what the Spanish word for genuflect is…..we genuflect, genuflectamos……I genuflect, genuflecta…..needless to say, I don’t really know, but thought it was interesting to consider!

The alarm went off at 7 a.m. and some of us were ready before breakfast, so we went for a walk around the neighborhood of our hotel. Our walking group consisted of three folks from Wausau, Wisconsin (father, son and mother) and me. The son has been living in Guatemala for several months and speaks Spanish very well, though he claims not to be fluent. He has been an enormous resource for us today. On our walk we passed a Farmacia, a pharmacy, and the son explained it was important to get a few ¨magical pills¨ from the pharmacy to help with typical American-tourist-upset-stomach. It’s Cipro…the stuff that was in the news a few years back. You can only get it by prescription in the states, but the parents of this man said it cured their stomach problems within an hour. Sounds much more effective than Pepto! Thankfully, no one has encountered any stomach problems yet.

Breakfast was delicious, and consisted of white toast, scrambled eggs, coffee (not instant coffee, which I’d heard was the standard) turkey ham, and for me, the vegetarian of the group, delectable smoky-flavored black refried beans. It was a great start to the day. It was decided over breakfast that we would hire a driver to give us a tour of the city. The hotel put in a call for us and found one tour operator which wanted $75 to $90 per person for the tour. They called someone else. The second try was the charm; a driver offered to take us wherever we wanted to go for $15 a head for an entire day! In the end, his services were worth ten times that, I think. Six of us headed out to explore San Salvador. The sun suddenly hid behind some clouds and a warm, light rain began to fall. This is how it goes here, during the rainy season, it’s sunny one minute, the next, raining, then sunny, hot, and so humid you could claw your clothes off!

little boy
Two people asking for change outside a local church. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

The first stop was San Francisco, a church in San Salvador where school was apparently in progress. The priest paused in his discussion to mention that tourists had joined the group! Children turned in their pews to examine us. Thankfully, we had two Spanish-speaking people in the group who could translate for us. We snapped some photos…and of particular interest was a large statue of Jesus with dark skin. I am told these are rare. It was pouring as we left the church. We next stopped at the Monumento El Salvador Del Mundo, Monument to the Savior of the World. The rain had paused, so we got out of the van and took some photos from outside a fence that encircled the monument. Then, we found there was a way to enter, so we got nearer to the monument, and were able to get some nice views of the city, as well.

From the monument we again began speeding through the busy streets of San Salvador, bus to our left, bus to our right, bus in front of us–all of them spewing black smoke. People drive like they’re in a race here, too, getting so close you’d swear they´re taking the paint off your vehicle, but not so. However, in our driving tour of the city we did come across one accident between a taxi and a truck, maybe. Taxi drivers gathered around en masse to discuss the situation.

Next stop: what we thought was the Sacred Heart of Jesus Basilica, where Oscar Romero would read the names of those killed or disappeared every Sunday, packing the space with reporters and the faithful. We toured the church, fully believing that’s where we were. Everyone was so enthusiastic to have us there, even the security guard pumped our hands and grinned as if we were honored guests. One of the women cleaning the church pulled back a cloth to reveal a precious piece of artwork honoring martyrs, so that we could take photos. How kind they were to us! The place was lovely, too, with graceful, sloping ceiling beams and stained glass. Only later did we find out that we were, in fact, at the Sacred Heart of Mary church. We are not disappointed…we are told we will make it to the Basilica later in our journey.

At this point, we´d all begun to think about lunch and what to do with the rest of our day with our driver, Henry. Our choices were these: go to a place recommended by our driver, called the Devil’s Door (Puerta del Diablo), or tour a village where the Pancho Indians live, descendants of the Pipil tribes. The group could not decide on an empty stomach, so we asked Henry to lead us to a good restaurant that served typical local fare which would also be gentle on our stomachs. Back into the van we hopped, dodging a soaking rain. Streams formed along the sides of the road, and water cascaded down the hillsides. Vendors, selling cut fruit, lunches, flower baskets and umbrellas (now, there’s a good idea!) huddled under dripping tarps, waiting for the customers to return. We tore through the city, and suddenly the rain stopped again, the sun came out, and it got hot!

panchimalco food stand
A fruit and veggie stand in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

We went up, up, up a hillside, passing shacks that serve as homes to so many families, and lush greenery that threatens to swallow up those very same shacks. After what seemed like a half hour, we reached the peak…I think! We passed a home with baby rottweilers in a cage (they were so cute and sweet looking) and four wandering dogs who may, or may not have a home, and we came to a stop in front of the best place in the world to have lunch. I think that may be the actual name of this restaurant: The Best Place In The World To Have Lunch. As you enter, you see in the distance that the restaurant opens up to the Earth and exposes all the beauty of El Salvador, spread out like a bright green blanket. Here, we ate our first pupusas, stuffed with refried beans, some stuffed with cheese, some stuffed with both, and a cabbage salad was served on the side.

restaurant pupusa cu.JPG
A pupusa, served at an amazing restaurant in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

It was heavenly, almost unbelievable that we were lucky enough to dine with this view.

restaurant view 8
Lunch with a view, in El Salvador. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

After our meal, Sister Karen and I stood outside on the steps, holding on to a metal railing and admiring the extensive flower garden someone at that property carefully cultivates. Roses bloomed in pink, yellow, red and white! Hydrangeas shone in pink, blue and somewhere in between. Coffee plants were there, too, and I think I may have taken a photo of one, but I can’t be entirely certain (I am only so grateful for the end product that lands in my cup in the morning!) It was paradise.

charish at earthquake site
The railing at our lunch spot  that shook during the earthquake. This was taken before it happened. 

Suddenly, the railing moved. This wasn’t a cheapo-type railing. It’s a metal pipe, painted to look like a railing. No doubt, it’s set in concrete somewhere down below. We looked at each other. ¨Did you feel that?¨ I said, and she said ¨Yeah¨ and before we knew it, it happened again, only harder! The entire floor shook and the windows of the restaurant danced. We looked over at our driver, Henry, and his eyes were as big as saucers.

It was then I knew….earthquake!

Henry gave the international signal for ¨Let’s get out of here!´ and we left the restaurant, while the wait staff was giddily mulling over the happenings. We spent a few minutes admiring the caged birds outside the restaurant and what some claim are original Mayan carvings, then piled back into the van for the next leg of our adventure (how much more can there be, you might wonder! Keep in mind, at that point, our GATE trip hadn’t even officially started!)

From there, we went to the Devil’s Door and climbed to the top of a very high cliff with rather treacherous steps.

charish at devil's door
At Devil’s Door in El Salvador. 

It was foggy on the way up, then the fog lifted and we were able to see stunning views of the pueblo we had considered visiting, as well as the valley. It was so worth the climb.

puerto del diablo
Devil’s Door in El Salvador. Haunting. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Thankfully, we had time to visit the pueblo, Panchimalco, as well. There we saw people selling fruit to the locals and hot sandwiches, and watched as children, in their spotless school uniforms, played in the schoolyard, which is the shadow of an amazing baroque colonial church, Santa Cruz. This church is the oldest in the diocese, dating back to 1837. it’s known for its fine woodcarvings, but what caught my eye were the number of white gauze-like sheers draped from the ceiling that gave the church an other-worldly feeling.

We returned to the hotel for the start of the GATE program, got an overview and met the other members of our group aside from two men from Texas who have yet to arrive. We began with reflection and discussion about our experience with ¨sacred space,¨ which became quite an emotional discussion for many of the members (including me!) Then, we had dinner, prepared by the kitchen staff of the hotel, avocado with tuna (or egg), salad, rice and ice cream. Oh, and fresh, real lemonade. Life is good!

charish hammock peruCharish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.

Next stops: Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand.

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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