El Cuco loco!

Still no computer cord ... excuse the lo-res ... La Tortuga Verde!

This note is coming at you from the wilds of eastern El Salvador. The semi-wilds, at very least.

We hadn’t planned to venture this far off the map, but things in Tunco just weren’t what we’d hoped for, so plans changed. Nobody’s fault, really. It’s just not the chilled out little enclave it once was. If I were 21 and looking to get wasted and laid, sure thing, give me Tunco with its noise and its clamor and its careless procession of fiestas. But I’m not 21. I’m 30-and-a-half. And it’s not just my changing tastes that cause issue. It’s my need, more and more, to be amongst my own kind.

So strange. Have you ever been somewhere that just felt wrong? In a deep and unsatisfying way? It was like that with Tunco, and so we cut our losses and begged our way to a partial refund from Papaya’s Lodge and were on our merry way, no hard feelings.

We spent a few days in the northeast of El Salvador – Perquin and Mozote, to be specific, both former FMNL guerilla strongholds during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. We did some pretty intense guerilla tourism up there and I’m working on a piece about it, to be unveiled at a later date. It was definitely the highlight of our trip, for me at least, and I got some amazing material and met some pretty awesome Guanacos. After that, we decided to hit the beach by way of San Miguel.

The bus ride to the playa was rather eventful. I struck up a friendly conversation with a talkative if slightly rough-looking hombre seated in front of us. He was sorta greasy and slick, but he spoke good English and I smiled politely as he told me how he used to live in Virginia, how he knew right away I was a gringa, etc., etc. Morgan was being super rude to him and refusing to join the conversation, and I figured it was simply because he didn’t like the locals flirting with me.

As soon as the guy hopped off the bus, however, Morgan was like, “Didn’t you see his hands?!”

Apparently, they were covered with “MS-13” tattoos, identifying him as a member of El Salvador’s most notorious and violent gang, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (“Clever Trout Gang” in English). We tried to decide which would have been worse: if he and his companion had tried to start shit with us, or if they’d tried to be our friends. Probably, the friends scenario would have ended worse, we agreed, because how do you beg off a night out on the town in the company El Salvadoran gang members without causing offense? You don’t.

Sometimes I am not the most observant soul.

In any case, we eventually made it safe and sound to our destination, a long, thin double lot of beachfront paradise called La Tortuga Verde. It’s essentially a backpacker resort and turtle sanctuary located on a long, dusty road between Playa El Cuco and Playa Esteron in the far east of this tiny, vaguely mango-shaped country.

Tortuga is the pride of a blissed-out Miami Beach expat called Tom, and it’s as close to perfection as we’ve come on this bumpy, five-week sojourn. Cheap, clean rooms with screened in porches and huge bathrooms (nevermind the family of cucarachas that lives in our soap dispenser) hammocks everywhere, a full menu with some good seafood, and a big, clean pool.

The beach here is huge and empty and full of strange looking sea and sky creatures. I go running in the morning and walking in the afternoon and I wish desperately for a telephoto lens.

Things have been quiet since we arrived last Monday and we’ve slipped into a sort of routine.

Mornings, we wake up ridiculously early – say around 6 a.m. – and Tom and Morgan head to Las Flores, a point break a few minutes west of Cuco, for surfing. On their way, they drop me at Tom’s office in Playa El Cuco so I can hook up to high speed Internet and get some of my writing and editing work out of the way. Tom’s office has not got much to recommend it by way of atmosphere – it’s an empty, unvarnished first-floor apartment in the middle of town with a broken toilet, a plastic table and chair, a standing fan, and a single solitary boarded up window. It abuts a brothel / beer bar on one side, where I’m told the whores cost $3 and which I almost mistook for a regular bar on my first day in town. Most days, I leave the officina door open and the iron safety gate shut so I can watch the taxi drivers and the drunk fishermen wander in and out of the whorehouse. Sometimes, the ladies themselves even venture into sunlight, usually to escort a customer back to his car after the visit is finished. These women are dumpy and usually dressed in shiny, skin-tight, synthetic tops, but they don’t seem unhappy. However, my efforts to take in the scenery and breathe in a bit of fresh ocean air are often thwarted by a few key subversive El Cuco forces.

One: when the door is open, I’m easy to spot, and people constantly try to sell me mangoes and coco water and really ugly souvenirs through the metal grates. On Friday, a brown hand reached through the grate and push the inside door open and when I stood up to confront the intruder, I was greeted by a schoolteacher and a crowd of about 30 high school students all staring at me in bewilderment. I couldn’t figure out what they wanted, but the teacher kept holding up a little plastic baggie which appeared to be filled with pepper and asking for something indecipherable and I wasn’t in the mood to translate or pantomime, so I just shook my head and pretended I spoke no Spanish.

“No vivo aqui,” I kept saying, and eventually they gave up and went away.

My best guess is they wanted a pair of scissors, a drink of water, or perhaps were on a scavenger hunt of some bizarre sort. You figure it out.

The other issue with keeping the office door open is that the cocteleria across the street has by some stroke of fate come into an old fashioned jukebox packed to the gills with Mariachi numbers and terrible modern Spanish pop, and as soon as they’re up and about – usually around 7:30 a.m. – they start blasting it full tilt. I’m talking the loudest, thumpingest music you’ve ever, ever heard. Even from across the street, it makes my ears bleed and my stomach ache, and worst of all, they enjoy changing songs halfway through, which has always been a personal pet peeve. It seems like a losing strategy for attracting breakfast crowds if you ask me, but very, very loud music is sort of due course around here. I’m talking ridiculously, insanely loud, so loud it rattles your skull and you can begin to hear what the person a foot away from you is saying.

Tom, who is fond of punch one-liners, has made up a little joke about it:

Why do El Salvadorans play their music so loud?

To drown out the silence.

Bada-boom bada-bing. There is definitely some truth there.

At any rate, Tom and Morgan usually pick me up around 10 a.m. and we head back to Tortuga for breakfast and hammock time. I’ve been eating tons of fruit and eggies and suffering the bad coffee. Afternoons, we sun on the beach and by the pool, take siestas, go for walks, etc. A few days back, we took a boat ride out to the nearby Mangalay Bay, a twisty, turny maze of mangrove that feels a bit like the mini-Amazon. We also visited the shrimp boats in search of dinner that day, although too late, as they’d sold all their catch off.

Evenings are more food, more reading, a few Golden beers or coco locos if the mood strikes, and off to bed ridiculously early. We’re talking 8:30 p.m., here. I am definitely becoming an old lady. I like it.

Best of all, Morgan is doing some design work for Tom in exchange for a generous room/food tab, so we’re pretty much living for no cost these days. It’s wonderful, but all good things must end, and we’ll probably head out in a few days. We’ve got about a week left of vacation and we want to hit up Suchitoto before San Salvador and the airport. Supposed to be a lesser cultural capital and it’s on the way, besides.

There’s much more to say, but my thighs are stuck to this plastic chair and my laptop is overheating, so I’ll sign off. Photos and thoughtful, eloquently penned essays on the wonders of this sweet, slightly downtrodden country to come. We return to Cannon Beach April 2, soon enough that we’ve begun to make up a mental list of things we want to do and eat when we get back. Top of the list: good coffee and pizza, plus ribs at Bigfoot’s in Seaside for Morgan, hot showers galore, high speed Interneting, and, for me, lots of long-distance running.

PS: I bragged on The Facebook that I’d read 15 books since we arrived and someone requested a list. I guess I’m going to make myself look slightly less erudite when I reveal the full spread of titles, as many were cheesy, mindless indulgences. Ah, well. I’m up to 17. Here goes:

Books read during this trip, with authors included as I recall them:

“Empress Orchid” – Anchee Min

“Flint” – Louis L’Amour (The best Western writer of all times, introduced to me by my late Papa Tom. Gracias, Papi!)

“La Societe du Spectacle” – Guy Debord (Nothing does wonders for your Spanish skills like reading a book in French, believe you me)

“Tanner on Ice”

“Tanner’s Virgin”

“A Long Line of Dead Men”

“Working” – Studs Terkel

“Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married” (Terrible but sort of awesome Brit Chick Lit … abandoned halfway through)

“The Wayward Reporter: The Life and Times of AJ Liebling”

“Salvador” – Joan Didion

“The Carrie Diaries” – Candace Bushnell (give me a break, it was all this one hostel had!)

“Start Something That Matters” – Guy who invented Tom’s Shoes

“Cat’s Eye” – Margaret Atwood

“Surfacing” – Margaret Atwood

“Light on Snow” – Anita Shreve

“At First Sight” – Nicholas Sparks (worst book of ALL TIMES! AVOID!)

“Shirley” – Charlotte Bronte (In progress, because I’ve gotten a hankering for reading material that will stimulate my brain instead of merely my spinal cord)

“Sophie’s Word” (In progress)

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2 thoughts on “El Cuco loco!

  1. Sam! says:

    Hey girl~ I know what you mean about places that “just felt wrong”. Bangkok, , Vang Vieng, Banos, and pretty much the whole of Colombia and Australia were like that for me. Good on you for getting out! It’s hard to hear that our beloved Tunco has changed, but that’s maybe another good reason why I shouldn’t revisit places I really liked- I don’t think I’d be able to handle it.

    • erinjbernard says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one … M and I were talking the other day about the advantages / pitfalls of returning to favorite foreign spots. It’s awesome to know the lay of the land, but I think it can be dangerous to bring too many expectations with you. Places change. Sometimes quickly, just like home. Such is life!

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