Wednesday, February 8, 2017


January 21, 2017

The Ticabus agent had told me to come to the office at 6:15 am to get my seat assignment.  We got up at 5:00 and called a taxi at 6:00.  Scott needed to go to the airport, as he had a flight at 9:00.  Since we were only about four blocks from the bus station, they dropped me off on the way.  The taxi didn’t want to leave me on the street outside the closed Ticabus office because the hours indicated that it didn’t open until 7:00.  The agent had clearly told me to come at 6:15 and I figured that the worst that could happen would be that I would have to drag my luggage across the street and look for someone in the main station.  I waved them off and the driver reluctantly pulled away.   A minute later, the agent arrived.  She assigned my seats and I then followed her across to the main station where she accepted my checked luggage.

The bus left at 7:00.  There were only about ten passengers.  I was the only gringo.  We drove out of Tapachula towards Volcan Tacuba.  The scenery quickly became wilder and more mountainous.  Within a half an hour, we arrived at the Guatemalan border at El Carmen.  This was the part of my journey that I had been dreading.  The Mexican immigration window was professional and quick.  They stamped my passport and I followed the signs across the border to the Guatemalan side.  Then I had to run the gauntlet of money changers and aggressive, official looking, crooks that wanted to take my money.  

Guatemalan Customs
When I had crossed the border there in 2014, I was taken in by a fellow with an official looking ID badge who claimed I needed him to handle my entry into the country and took nearly all my money to “pay for my visa.”  This time I was prepared.  I had changed some pesos into quetzales in advance and brushed off the boys looking for tips.  More difficult were the ID badge waving crooks.  One of them grabbed my passport as I approached immigration and gave me a story about how I needed to pay 200 quetzales because I didn’t have my Mexican tourist card.  Knowing that Mexican immigration has just taken that card, as they always do upon exit, I wrested my passport from his grip and told him I would pay the immigration agent.  At that point, he admitted defeat and looked for another victim.  The immigration agent stamped my passport perfunctorily and charged me nothing.

The bus was waiting for us outside immigration.  I was the third one to reboard.  The driver didn’t believe that I had managed to get through immigration so efficiently and demanded to see my passport stamp before letting me back on the bus.  He and the conductor were somewhat incredulous that I had pulled it off when several Central Americans were having trouble.  We waited while the remaining passengers trickled in and then proceeded to customs.  The exterior of the bus was searched and one passenger had to disembark while they searched her baggage, but no one came aboard and my baggage was unmolested.

Guatemalan Countryside
We continued through the mountains, eventually intersecting a highway through the plains where we passed tree plantations and cane fields.  At 10:00, we stopped at a Burger King for a food and bathroom break.  I ordered a breakfast muffin sandwich which turned out to be easily twice the size of a similar menu item at home.  Back on the bus, we continued another three hours through the highlands until we arrived at the Ticabus station/fortress.  The air conditioning became progressively colder as we proceeded.  I put on my sweater and zipped the legs onto my shorts, but couldn’t get warm.

Tiny Hotel Room in Guatemala City
Ticabus had changed locations since my last visit there in 2014.  The new station was more modern and more fortresslike.  The bus entered the parking lot through a giant gate.  The terminal building formed the heart of the compound with hotel rooms both above the terminal and in another building across a smaller parking area with another towering gate.  I paid my $25 to the clerk at the snack bar and was ushered to a tiny room in the far building.  I should have bought something to eat because the snack bar apparently closed after the 2:00 bus left.

I was chilled and tired, so crawled under the comforter and tried, unsuccessfully, to nap.  The traffic noise was constant and I was freezing.  Finally, I got up and put on socks and a fleece.  It was 63 degrees.  After three weeks in Chiapas where it never dipped below 78, even at night, I was a wimp.  It took me five hours to get warm.  I poked my head out about 5:00 to see if I could get something to eat, but all was dark in the terminal.  I went back to my room and ate the ancient Lara bar in my backpack.  Fortunately, I had brought a bottle of water from the Hotel Mo Sak with me.

Ticabus is an odd organization.  They effectively run buses from Tapachula, Mexico to Panama City, Panama.  Many of their stations include hotels where travelers can lay over or arrive the night before early departures.  Their website appears modern, but you can’t buy tickets online, although they have been promising that feature for at least 2.5 years.  I tried to make a hotel reservation online and received a regurgitation of my information that might have been a confirmation, but didn’t identify itself as such.  I verified that reservation with the Ticabus office in Tapachula, but the snack bar clerk had no reservation system and merely wrote my name and payment in a manual ledger.  Still, since my bus ticket from Tapachula to San Salvador cost me only about $35, it was hard to complain.  Flying would have cost me $650.

I locked myself back in my cell and entertained myself with the excellent wifi (there was wifi on the bus, too) before retiring early.  My bus would depart at 6:00 am the next day.

January 22, 2017
The Ticabus Terminal in Guatemala City

I need not have worried that no one would remember to let me out of my cage in the morning because they came around at 5:00 am to knock on my door and tell me to report to the station at 5:30 to check in.  I had hoped for some breakfast, but there was nothing at the snack bar except junk food, so I had a tiny, but tasty, latte and a package of cookies for breakfast.  For the past year, I had been looking for a slightly larger replacement for the bag I had purchased in Yelapa in 2014 that had become disreputable looking over the years.  Apparently, those bags originate in Guatemala.  I purchased a beautiful new one in a larger size for 50 quetzales or about $6.25.  That was a couple of bucks less than I had paid for the smaller one in Mexico.

Misty Morning in Guatemala
It was 61 degrees outside and everyone was bundled up in boots, hats, and scarves like it was snowing outside.  The bus left right at 6:00.  It was too dark to see much of Guatemala City as we drove through.  By the time it got light, we were up in the mountains again.  It was misty and I couldn’t see far.  The roads were bad and we progressed very slowly.  I kept hoping that we would stop somewhere for breakfast, but we never did.  The highlands we traveled through seemed much more prosperous than the jungle near Chiapas.  We drove past modern businesses and nice new homes intermixed with the sort of shacks that had predominated near the border.

Guatemalan Homes
By mid-morning, we reached the border of El Salvador.  It was nothing compared with the border of Mexico.  The conductor took our passports to Guatamalan immigration and got us stamped out of the country.  A Salvadoran health agent came aboard and told us to wash our hands to avoid illness.  They the customs official appeared with a list of our names and checked each of our passports or ID cards against the list.  Customs didn’t even bother with us.  We never left the bus.  Soon we were rolling down out of the mountains to San Salvador.
The Salvadoran Border

              Our first stop was in a nice area on the northern fringe of San Salvador where I had actually been to buy boat batteries in 2014.  Then we spent half an hour crawling across the city through traffic and arrived at the Ticabus station at 12:00.  This station was less of a fortress than the one in Guatemala City, although an armed guard did open tall gates to let the bus pass.  We disembarked and collected our baggage.  As soon as I stepped out onto the street, a taxi driver approached me and I asked him to take me to the Terminal del Sur.  I think he thought I was crazy to want to get on a Salvadoran chicken bus, but he took me there and located the proper bus for me and loaded my duffel bag aboard.  This particular bus had no luggage space behind the rear seats, so he put my bag on the floor near the rear door and I took a seat beside it.  He advised me not to take my phone or camera out of my backpack and not to flash more than a $5 bill on the bus.  The cab ride to the bus station cost me $8.

I sat on the bus at the station for a little over an hour before the bus filled up enough to warrant leaving.  I was on the Costa del Sol bus.  The bus was just over half full when we left the station.  I was charged double because of my luggage, but the fare was still only $3.  We had not gone far before the bus was full  It seemed that every woman who boarded the bus had a dish pan full of some type of food that got shoved under the rear seats or piled in the rear aisle until that area was full and the pans stretched up the aisle towards the front.  No one could pass the obstructions, but people kept cramming into the bus until there were young men hanging out the door. Despite having paid for two seats, I tried to move over to give a spot to a pregnant woman who sat her little girl there instead.  There was a party atmosphere as we rolled out of the hills and down towards the coast.  We call such buses “chicken buses,” but this was the first one I had seen in a long time with an actual chicken on it.  The owner had it wrapped in a plastic bag.  She held the bag handles and the chicken’s feet in her hand and the bird’s head poked out through a hole in the bottom of the bag.  It glared at me malevolently.

Waiting for My Ride
The occupancy of the bus peaked after we took on passengers coming from Zacatecoluca and gradually thinned as we headed towards Bahia del Sol.  I was one of the last passengers to disembark.  I got off at Hotel Bahia del Sol and dragged my belongings down the long driveway to the reception area.  My friend, Jan, texted me just as I picked up my phone to call her.  I continued down to the marina while Jan got in her little boat to come and get me.  We were back on the island in time for cocktail hour.

January 23, 2017

Jan installed me in her little guest house, which consisted of two bedrooms with a bathroom between.  It was quite comfortable, but had been unoccupied for some time and the plumbing revealed problems when the water was turned back on.  No water was getting to the toilet tank and, when I poured a bucket of water in it to flush, it leaked out onto the floor.  After cleaning all the algae out of the shower head, I got a shower, but the shower faucet leaked so badly that I had to turn the water back off afterwards.
Jan's Casita

We started the day with a trip to the hardware store to buy six bags of cement to be used to improve Jan’s cistern.  Jan parked her truck at the hotel.  When we got there, her truck battery was dead.  A couple of the marina employees brought out a charger and charged it enough to get it started, but we didn’t dare turn it off again, so we left it running while Jan bought the cement.

Returning to the Island
Our main priority for that day, however, was the beginning day of the season’s English classes.  We had two groups.  The beginners came from 1:30 to 2:30.  There were seven children between the ages of four and nine, four girls and three boys.  They were adorable.  We started them with the numbers one through five.  They could all count, but they had trouble recognizing the numerals and putting them in order.  We were teaching them numbers as much as English.  The nine-year old had come before and was ahead of the others.  He wanted to skip ahead while the others were still struggling.  After half an hour, we took them out back where we had numbers tacked to stakes and played games involving their running to a specified number.  The girls were shy at first, but soon they were all running around and having fun.

The more advanced group came from 3:00 to 4:00.  They ranged in age from eleven to fourteen.  There were two boys and six girls.  We started with a review of opposite adjectives.  We then asked them to write five sentences describing a person or thing.  It took them half the class, but all of them were able to do it.  I was impressed.  We were pleased with how the classes had gone and glad to relax when the children finally left.

There was no city water and no electric utility on the island.  Wells had once provided fresh water, but salt water had intruded, so water needed to be collected from rain or purchased from the filtration plant.  Electricity came from solar panels and was stored in batteries that were topped up by running a gas generator for a couple of hours at night.  Jan also had inflatable solar lights we used as flashlights and at night when the generator was off.  Jan was in the process of building a large cistern to store more rain water for use during the dry season.

My casita had a sink, toilet and shower gravity fed from a tank on the roof, but I had had to turn off the water because the shower faucet leaked so badly.

January 24, 2017

Tuesday was our shopping day.  Jan had broken her glasses so we had planned to go into San Salvador to get her some new ones.  The death of the truck battery meant that we had to go to PriceSmart to get a new one and there were other errands to do in the city.

Inside PriceSmart
We left at 8:30 and took the dinghy across to the mainland.  Once again, we had to get the guys from the marina to charge the battery before we could start the truck.  Then we drove straight to PriceSmart to get a new battery.  PriceSmart was basically the same as Costco.  Even the brands were the same.  We bought some cat food, rum, and cases of beer and club soda.  I commented that we looked like a couple of drunken cat ladies.  Once the battery was installed (no discount for core charges in El Salvador) we headed to the shopping center to get Jan’s glasses.

San Salvador Newspaper Headline
The shopping center was a modern mall, much like any mall in the United States.  Jan picked out some frames and had her eyes examined.  Her glasses with high index plastic progressive lenses cost $270.  I had paid $1,000 for the same thing in the United States.  I sat and read the newspaper while Jan was having her eyes examined.  The local paper was speculating that either Russia, China, or Germany would assume world leadership now that Trump had vowed to take an isolationist position.

Once Jan was finished at the optician’s, we went downstairs to buy a watch battery for one of the cruisers and then decided to get lunch before going grocery shopping.  I had been in El Salvador for two days and not yet eaten a pupusa (corn meal patties filled with various ingredients), so we went to a pupusa stand in the food court.  We each got the lunch special of two pupusas and a drink for $1.99.  This was actually expensive for pupusas, but they were larger than normal and very tasty.  I had one chicharron (fried pork belly) and cheese and one bean and cheese.  They both came with cups of tomato sauce and pickled cabbage.  It was a very tasty and filling lunch.

After lunch, we went to Super Selecto (a modern grocery store) to pick up some groceries.  Then we headed across town to the hardware store.  The traffic was heavy and it took us some time to get there.  Jan knew half the staff at Vidri, the big hardware store.  We needed to buy new innards for my toilet and a washer for my shower faucet.  Jan chatted with a couple of the clerks and then we went looking for one of them who was on his lunch break because she had prepared a glossary of hardware terms in Spanish and English for him.  We eventually found him sitting at a table across the street.  He spoke some English and was very grateful to Jan for her effort.  She couldn’t resist helping anyone who wanted to learn English.

Groceries Waiting on the Launch Ramp
We drove back down the hill and out to the beach.  Despite it being the late afternoon, we made good time, arriving at the hotel by 4:00.  Chequi met us at the launch ramp and brought the dinghy over so that we could load our groceries into the boat.  Then he took the boat back to the dock so that we didn’t need to get our feet wet or worry about falling on the slimy ramp.  That was a real concern, because I had lost traction at one point while loading the groceries.

Back at the island, I made straight for the Casita to rebuild the toilet before it got dark.  We verified that water was coming through the intake hose and cleaned it thoroughly.  After replacing all the guts of the toilet tank, we turned on the water and still nothing was flowing.  This was mysterious.  I decided to take apart the new valve and water came rushing out as soon as I loosened the screws.  Algae grew in the PVC pipes because they let light through and it had clogged the valve.  The old one probably would have worked fine if we had thought to clean the algae out of it, but we had needed to replace the leaky seal between the tank and base, anyway.  Finally, the mystery of the toilet was resolved and I was able to flush, although I still had to keep the water turned off because the shower leaked.  Jan decreed that it was time for a rum, so the shower would have to wait for the next day.

January 25, 2017

My friend, Jan, had three large dogs – two Doberman mixes and a big black lab named Ember.  I was awakened about 6:15 when Ember came bursting through my screen door and bounded onto my bed to say good morning.  She was soon followed by the younger of the two Dobermans, Wolf, who also wanted his morning pats.  His mother, Shadow, was pregnant and was spending a lot of time digging nests in the sand.  Jan had no idea how she had gotten pregnant, so didn’t know exactly when to expect the puppies.  It seemed like she was getting close, though.



I got up and set to work on fixing the leaky shower.  I had to chip away some cement that was preventing me from unscrewing the valve.  I cleared the cement away from the valve, but needed a better wrench to get it out, so I got dressed and went up to the house to get coffee and breakfast.  After a little break and chat with Jan, I took a crescent wrench back to the casita and pulled the valve out of the wall.  Sure enough, the washer was bad as I had expected.  I changed it and put everything back together.  The shower no longer leaked, but it was still filthy from all the algae that had come out of the pipes, footprints from all our repairs, and the cement crumbs.  I drew a bucket of water from the rain barrel and washed down the shower.  By the time I was done, it was time for us to leave.

La Brasas
We took the dinghy across to the mainland and then drove out to the restaurant Las Brasas.  Jan gives English lessons to the owner’s two children, but we went an hour early so that we could have lunch there first.  The restaurant was a pleasant, shady location.  Jan ordered chicken soup and I ordered a 6- ounce beef tenderloin.  The food was very good.  The tortillas were thick and tasty, almost like pupusas without the filling.  My steak lunch was $6.95.  Beer was $1.00.

After lunch, Jan gave the kids their lesson.  They were reviewing commands and verbs.  We played Simon Says for half of the lesson and they enjoyed that.  Then we played Chinese Checkers with them.  They cheated at both Simon Says and Chinese Checkers, but they were well behaved kids and we had fun with them.

It was nearly 5:00 by the time we got back home.  I finally got my shower and then I had a little time to study Italian before it got dark.

January 26, 2017

I had a little time before the 1:30 class to wander two doors down and visit my friends Bill and Jean.  Isabel, one of the islanders I had met the last time I was in El Salvador, was there sewing some window covers for one of the cruising boats and I got to say hello to her.  The two trawlers I had met in Chiapas were due to arrive that afternoon but, even though the port captain had driven out from La Herradura, they didn’t make it to the rendezvous point by high tide.  We didn’t have long to visit, but agreed to meet later for a drink and a swim at the home of some friends who lived on the mainland side.

Improvements to the Cistern
One of the smaller kids in our beginner class came early with his father who was helping Jan to build a larger cistern to store rainwater.  She had had 2000 gallons in it when to iguanas fell in and died, making it necessary to dump all the water. Now, she was rounding the corners to prevent the water from pushing the walls apart and adding a cover.  The father was doing the work so that he could afford school supplies for his children.  The children at the public school were required to wear shoes and to have clear plastic backpacks so that they couldn’t conceal weapons.  Jan had had to purchase these items for two of his children so that they could start school.  She figured it was better to hire the father and let him pay for such things.

I reviewed the numbers one through five with the boy.  He did well with two and three, but had trouble recognizing the others, although he could count just fine if I showed him a picture of four or five items.  Gradually, the other students trickled in.  Despite Jan’s lecture that missing more than three classes would result in expulsion, three students were missing.  The island school was closed for painting and Jan suspected that the parents might have assumed Jan’s school would be closed, too.  The school on the island was seldom open five days a week.

We reviewed the numbers one through five with all the kids and then the older kids split off to work on six through twenty while I continued to practice with the little ones.  A few of them did pretty well, but others had more trouble.  The youngest one had done well at first, but lost interest and became very shy.  We worked with flash cards and then I had them run to numbered stakes on the grass.  Then I had them tell me where to run.  They got a kick out of that for a few minutes.  Finally, time was up and Jan quizzed each of them and rewarded correct answers with a candy.

The Main Road on El Cordoncillo
The island had a terrible litter problem, as does most of El Salvador, because there was no trash collection.  People regularly threw wrappers out the windows of the buses and there were middens of debris next to the bus stops. Jan attempted to teach the children in her classes to put their wrappers in the trash can.  The little ones were pretty good about it because they ate their candy right away.  The older ones took it with them and I later found some of the wrappers on the pathway.  I brought the evidence back to Jan so that she could bring them to task.

We had a short break before the older kids arrived.  We reviewed adjectives and nouns with them and then dealt each of them five picture cards.  They were asked to write a sentence describing each of the cards and we tried to guess which ones they were describing.  They knew the colors very well, but didn’t do as well with the other adjectives when pressed.

I had told Bill and Jean we would be done at 4:00, but the kids lingered until 4:20 and it was 4:30 before I could get back up to Bill and Jean’s.  They made me a margarita and we hopped in their dinghy and zipped across the estuary to the dock at Terry and Andrew’s.  Terry and Andrew were building/renovating a house on the mainland side.  They had a beautiful pool and yard and were close to finishing a lovely house.  We lounged in the pool with our drinks and talked until the sun started to dip low.  I got back to Jan’s before dark, but I missed dinner.  Jan ate her big meal at noon and just had a snack for dinner.  Since she was thin and I needed to lose a few pounds, I was adopting her eating habits.  A missed meal didn’t kill me.

January 27, 2017

I woke at 6:00, but read until 7:00.  We had a leisurely morning until 10:00, when Jan was supposed to have a meeting with the local bank.  They were going to send a banker to talk to the people on the island about how they could obtain business loans.  Loans had been unavailable to them because they didn’t have proper addresses or verifiable income because the economy on the island is mostly all cash.  Jan was the treasurer of the island’s non-profit organization.  One of the missions for the meeting was to change the signatures on the organization’s bank account.  We arrived at the designated spot a few minutes after 10:00 to find only one of the other officers in attendance.  Jan called the president who came down to join us.  Apparently, the banker had cancelled the meeting.  We chatted for a few minutes and then agreed to reconvene when the banker was available.

I studied Italian for a couple of hours and Jan made some Italian wedding soup for lunch.  At 1:00, Jan's worker arrived to resume work on the cistern.  The previous day, he had cut and bent pieces of rebar to bridge the corners.  He finished drilling the holes in which to insert the rebar and then he and Eduardo (the caretaker) made concrete forms out of metal mesh and slabs of plywood.

Jan’s two high school students arrived for their English class at 2:00.  Christina’s father, Jose Luis,
The Pinuela Hedge
came with them.  He chatted with Jan's employees and distracted them from working on the cistern the entire time we were talking to the girls.  His daughter, Iris, was an only child and he was clearly very proud of her.  Both of the girls spoke pretty good English, although they were somewhat shy about it.  They had both just started their first year of high school at fifteen.  High school begins at grade 10 in El Salvador.  They both hoped to go to university.  Christina wanted to be an architect and Iris wanted to be a chemist.  She struck me as being a serious, studious sort of girl.  She was perhaps the only child on the island with her own computer.  It was a bit tough to keep the conversation going, especially with all the commotion at the cistern, but we chatted with them for two hours.  Jan had to keep getting up and checking the back of the property for intruders because, the previous day, iguana hunters had used the cover of the English classes to throw tree trunks across the spiny pinuela hedge and come onto the property to hunt the iguanas.  Jan had had to have Eduardo toss all the downed wood from the neighbor’s property onto her side so the iguana hunters couldn’t pull the same trick again.  The neighbor had many large trees along the property line and was too elderly to maintain them himself.

After the girls and the workers left, I cracked a beer and sat down to write.

January 28, 2017

I had stayed up late reading the night before, so I slept in until 7:30.  I got up and took a shower and washed my hair.  It was a little warmer at 7:30 than at 6:00, so the cold shower was bearable.  For once, we had nothing planned for the day.  I made a cup of coffee and lounged around until it was time to start cooking lunch.  My big plan for the day was to make drunken chicken.  Drunken chicken is made with chorizo, diced tomatoes and vegetables, tequila and orange juice.  Everything was slightly different than at home, but it still turned out tasty.  We sat down to a nice meal about 1:00 and even had a glass of wine.

After lunch. I sprawled in the hammock and read.  Jan worked on the lesson plan for Monday’s classes.  She was going to teach the younger kids colors and the older kids adjectives to describe people.  About 4:30, one of the island women came by selling fried tortillas with pickled cabbage, hard-boiled egg, cheese, and salsa.  These were the local version of empanadas, a dish that varies from turnovers to tamale pie, depending on the country.  I got dinner for both of us for $1.40.  The food was very tasty and satisfying.  I had done without dinner the previous two nights and it was nice to eat something substantial for a change.  After eating, I returned to my hammock.  It was a perfect day in paradise.
Island Takeout

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