El Salvador: Near Heaven, Part 1
Juayúa: Magnifico lugar cerca del cielo
That’s how they describe the Route of Flowers’s middle town named after the River of the Orchids, nestled away in the mountains. And it’s true!
The bus system in El Salvador is like a jigsaw puzzle that is solved by riddles answered through questions you ask the locals in the area. I asked around and found out that I needed to take a bus from the beach to Sonsonate at 7am, otherwise the next bus wouldn’t pass until 2pm! Surely I was up with the roosters and ready to go at the bus stop before the sun came up.
The buses in El Salvador are called “Chicken Buses,” I guess because of the image of people popping their heads out of the windows of the pimped out school buses — like chickens! These things are a lot of fun — each one is privately owned and setup with its premium speaker system (better than anything I have), and the driver turns the volume up as the morning progresses. When I boarded the bus ($1.50 for the two-hour ride) the music started off suave — like new wave and rock music by Sting, and as the sun rose and tide came in to the shore, the music beats got faster and louder until the driver was blasting reggaeton at 9 in the morning! I felt right at home :)
When you get to the Sonsonate terminal, you hear people calling out the stops from every corner. This one to the capital! — this one to Ahuachapán! — calling all passengers to Santa Ana! — once you’re immune they all sound like cock-a-doodle-doo’s.
The drivers don’t announce the stops, and I certainly couldn’t tell where I was going from the inside, so I relied on a boy sitting next to me to let me know when to get off in Juayúa. Of course, it help to pronounce the name correctly. I still didn’t have the gringo accent completely out of me yet, and I was pronouncing it, “Joo-you-uh.”
The kid laughed. He tells me it’s pronounced: “Why-YOU-a”
I arrived in the morning when chores were being finished, men were selling their wares, a man in the vespa-taxi waved me down to see if I was interested in going to the “Chorros de la Calera,” and children were still in school.
I instantly fell in love with this place and its colors.
The climate was noticeably much cooler than it had been at the beach.
The entire town is about 10 blocks long and 10 blocks wide, with the central park and church as your reference point to where all things are located. My first stop was Doña Mercedes’ Casa de Huéspedes. I found her place on the southeastern side of town across from the best pupusería in town. She had the door open and I called out her name: Se encuenta una Doña Mercedes por aquí?
An elderly lady get out from her seat and runs over to me and greets me with a huge smile and tells me to come in.
I felt right at home.
I sat down with Doña Mercedes and immediately we connected. She has family from Fontana and Redlands — in the Inland Empire where I grew up as well!
I told her the story about my mom and grandma running away during the civil war, and she shook her head remorsefully. She told me that it was hard, but that Juayúa hadn’t been affected severly. She said in the rural northeastern parts — la parte oriente — had been struck the worst.
The rest of the day we chatted about family in the states and telenovelas.
The sound of the church bells in the distance inspired me to continue checking out the village, otherwise I would’ve staying with Doña for the rest of the day!
Since I came during lent, only a few weeks before the Holy Week — semana santa — there were church processions people frequented. I was lucky enough to catch one wrapping up.
It would be impossible to relate to you all of the wonderful people I met in this village.
I went to El Cadejo Café, the only bar that is open until 2am in Juayúa, where they serve their own privately brewed beer.
I contemplated moving to Juayúa at this point. The server who made my coffee told me a funny story: He met a girl, a white girl from Pennsylvania, while she was travelling here from the states. They fell in love, she renounced everything she had and married him and moved to Juayúa with him! Now she worked at the café with him! I met her briefly and recall her tattoos — one depicting the outline of Pennsylvania with a star pointing out which city she was from, and another with the outline of El Salvador stamped on her arm with a star right where Juayúa was located.
Claudia, another serve at El Cadejo Café, reminded me of a Salvadoran girl I knew in Santa Monica named Leslie. She had a golden tooth like my cousins and grandma did back in the 90’s. She invited me to the live music they were going to be having tomorrow night. Even though I told them I probably wouldn’t be in Juayúa by then, they knew they’d see me.
I went to a separate hotel where I met the tour guide for the Tour of the 7 Cascades, and gave him the $20 payment. His name is Douglas, and he is a small person with a big smile.
I met a woman while waiting for my breakfast the next morning. She spoke gringo Spanish with a heavy accent, and asked me a few questions about “how to say something” after hearing my fluid Spanish. When I asked her where she was from, she giggles and tells me, “I live here. Actually, I live in San Salvador, but I visit here all the time. It’s like my second home.”
She told me how she worked at an international school in the capital, and felt that her quality of life was much better here in El Salvador than it would be in the states as a single mom. Here she could afford a babysitter and a private school, a nice apartment, car and food on her teacher salary, while in the states that may not be possible.
I found out that to rent a home in Juayúa would only cost $250-$300 a month!
The two who cooked this breakfast for me were entertaining characters.They reminded me of the cooks who come out on TV or telenovelas as comic relief, and always have something entertaining to say — even if it’s about the most mundane of things. I enjoyed getting to know Ismael and Maria at the Hotel Anáhuac.
Before my day ended, I watched the colors in the sky change as the sun set, and listened to all of the tropical birds sing and call to each other in the Central Park. At this moment, I felt like I was at home in heaven.
However, the best was yet to come from the waters that fell from the sky.