Day 97 – The Guatemalan Milkman – 97.39 km
Today in the morning I still have some time to visit the city as my bicycle would be ready at 2 PM, which is the fastest I could convince the guys to do it. I decided to visit the National Palace in the main square, which was built at an enormous cost to the country by a dictator some sixty years ago. The palace really is quite impressive architecturally. I found it kind of humorous when our tour guide said that one of the rooms is closed as they are repairing it from damage caused by a car bomb from several years ago.
While leaving the palace I saw a man walking around with several goats. I thought, what the heck is he doing in the center of a city like this? My question was answered no more than a minute later when someone walked up and handed him a coin, he immediately pulled out a cup from out of nowhere, raised the goats leg, and began milking away. I was a little taken aback at first, and then nearly died laughing. It really gives the term fresh milk a new meaning!
Finally on my way back to my hotel to pick up all my stuff so I could go get my bicycle I passed by a movie theater. Of course all the latest American movies were playing, usually dubbed in Spanish. The irony in all of this was that there were street vendors with stalls on the sidewalk directly in front of the theater selling pirated versions of these very same movies. Oh the irony!
Checked out of my hotel I proceeded to once again catch a bus back to the expensive area of Guate. My guidebook warns against using these buses as there have been reports of robberies, rapes, and even murders on them, but I decided to take my chances. This is a city where there are very many poor people, but also quite a few well off people. Thus, there are of course services to cater to their every need. From gourmet European food to English books, specialized bicycle stores, and Mercedes-Benz cars, you can find it here. Fortunately in one such posh book store I was able to locate the guidebook to Central America that I had been looking for feverishly in all of Mexico. Up until this point I had someone scanning me pages from the book and e-mailing them to me!
Sure enough my bicycle was ready at two o'clock as promised. They seem to have done a good job, let's just hope this gets me to Panama! I also had them tighten my crankarm which I was having problems with several days ago. Fortunately the expensive area of Guate is located on the outer area of the city, which made my trip out of this metropolis much easier. Even so, I had to be very careful as I was basically bicycling on a major freeway. The road leading out of Guate proved to be quite rough as it was a solid 12 kilometers of all up hill. All this time the city dragged on, although much less crowded now. I must say it was kind of funny when the boys from the bicycle shopped rolled by in a car and yelled encouragement at me!
After all my suffering up that hill I was greatly rewarded with quite possibly the longest downhill I have ever ridden. The road was great and the hill just seemed to have no end! I counted the downhill as being a solid 24 kilometers with not one climb. However, as I have learned on this trip. Where there is a nice downhill pain and suffering are sure to follow. The road to where I am today was filled with cycles of up and down, and let me tell you that those downs go by much faster than the ups!
One nice thing about Guatemala is that every so often along the road there is a tent setup where there is a person who provides free information for tourists. I stopped at one of these where the guy recommended a better route to San Salvador for me which is supposedly a little flatter. I'm really enjoying Guatemala; the people are always very friendly and helpful, and the roads are surprisingly fairly good!
I am currently staying in a town called Jalpatagua not far from the border of El Salvador. I had intended to make it further today, but since I began bicycling at 2 o'clock it was simply not physically possible. Time, not lack of energy, was my limiting factor today. Tomorrow I will wake up bright and early and try to make it to San Salvador as fast as possible so I still have a few hours to see the city.
Day 98 – Robbed in Broad Daylight – 139.31 km
So I wasn't robbed at gun point or anything like that, but I might as well have been. I was staying fairly close to the border and thus made it here within an hour. Unfortunately things here spoiled my mood for the rest of the day. Upon leaving Guatemala I was forced to pay $50 in various fees for visas, departure taxes, as well as something else. This seemed very odd to me, but since I had not properly read up on all these fees I couldn't really argue.
When I made it across the bridge to El Salvador I found out that I had been duped and that I shouldn't have had to pay anything. *******s! I had become a victim of the "Gringo fee" as I like to call it. At this point I was pretty pissed off. I strongly considered going back just to kick someone's ass. Even if I wouldn't get my money back, breaking someone's nose would make me feel a lot better. Upon careful consideration I decided it would be better to simply learn from my mistakes and not try anything dumb, as they would have probably chopped me to bits using their machetes.
Although fuming mad and ready to give someone a bead down, I reluctantly moved on into El Salvador. One find I find very interesting about this country is that in 2001 they made the US dollar their official currency! It's kind of funny that a country totally adopts the currency of another. Although I must say this is very convenient for me as I don't have to think and recalculate prices for things in my head from one currency to another.
In order to both shorten my route and spare my legs I did not take the main highway but rather the secondary highways. To my great surprise, these were very good with a wide shoulder. Eventually this highway led to the main highway leading to San Salvador very close to a city called Santa Ana, which is the second largest city in El Salvador. As I was only two kilometers off the road I figured it would be a shame to miss seeing it, and thus took a short detour into the city. Being strapped on time I did an express visit, going only to the main square to snap a few pictures and then moving along.
The road to San Salvador was great! The shoulders were fairly wide, the asphalt in excellent condition, and the terrain fairly flat. Unfortunately my luck did not last all the way to the capitol. Roughly twenty kilometers before the city I began to climb, or more precisely crawl, up a simply monstrous hill of some ridiculously steep grade. To make matters worse this was a three lane major highway full of traffic with no shoulders. What this means is that if someone is honking feverishly at you, you better move your butt off the road or your getting run over, because he isn't stopping. As if things weren't bad enough I ran out of water going up the hill and had no place to resupply.
After what seemed like an eternity and many stops I struggled to the top of that hill. I stumbled into a gas station where I drank a liter of refreshing and very unhealthy Pepsi like it was nobody's business. It was about twelve kilometers to the center from this point. Although this was all downhill, it was quite possibly the most stressful and terrifying twelve kilometers I have ever ridden in my life.
The road into the capitol is a major three lane highway with a fairly small shoulder. You are blasting down this road at 40 kilometers per hour. There are very often on and off ramps as well as splitting of the road. Being as cars are traveling more than twice as fast, it is quite a challenge trying not to get run over. Finally off the major highway I made it onto a major road in the city which was also three lanes. Here shoulders are non-existant and thus you are basically stuck taking up a whole lane unless you want to get run off the road by a bus. However, taking up a whole lane is only acceptable if you are able to keep up with traffic. This basically entails pedaling as if your life depended on it as you have to keep up a speed of at least 40 kilometers per hour. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the twenty or so stoplights which stopped me along the way. Bicycling in even the largest of cities in the United States is a piece of cake compared with this. It is simply insane and there is no other way to word it.
Since I made it to the city at around 4 o'clock I still had a few hours in order to see some of the sights. I conveniently chose a small hotel in the very center which I was able to secure for $8 including a bathroom. Unfortunately my room is located next to a nightclub, so I can not only hear music blasting loud but I can feel it too. I visited the cathedral, main square, several notable churches, as well as the local market. The local market was equally crazy with cars and swarms of people zigzagging between each other. The traffic in the city is absolutely hectic, it's almost a skill not getting killed down here. Here pedestrians yield to cars, not the other way around as in the United States.
One thing I should mention is that San Salvador is a very, very dangerous city. For a population of 850,000 people there are 18,000 security guards employed here! We're not talking the kind of security guys we have back home who don't carry a gun or handcuffs; we're talking about guys with combat shotguns, M16s, ammunition belts, and bulletproof vests! These guys are found everywhere from parks to pharmacies, hardware stores, and post offices. Coincidently my hotel is conveniently located next to a gun shop for all my shooting needs. So thus another day rolls by. Today I have become a little poorer, but also a little wiser. Either way, I move only forward!
Day 99 – The Town That Sleeps – 129.28 km
Before checking out of my hotel this morning I had to make a quick stop to the post office to send a package full of old maps and souvenirs home. I managed to find the post office without problems as I had been there the prior day to buy stamps for some post cards. Sending a package was not cheap, but then again not terribly expensive. A box of dimensions around 3" x 5" x 8" and weighing 1.1 kilograms cost me $18 shipped to Canada. What I find really funny down here is that instead of printing off a sticker with the price or doing something more effective, they simply gave me $18 in stamps. Needless to say one entire side of my box was full of stamps, 17 of them to be precise.
After having that taken care of I once again set off into the mayhem that is San Salvador. Fortunately it wasn't as bad as yesterday since the historical center is more on the outside of town. I had quite a scare today when my camera nearly became a casualty, a soldier wounded in action if you will. While riding on the shoulder of a busy road I hit a very rough stretch of bumps and holes. I was going fast and not able to avoid it as there were buses to my left. Since I do not keep my front bag zipped all the way up my camera jumped up a few times and right out of my bag! It fortunately got caught on my handlebars and did not fall to the ground. As carefully as possible I slowed to a halt and replaced it to it's right spot. Yikes! What a close call!
The highways here are typically only two lanes with very wide shoulders of both sides of the road. Thus a system functions here that is similarly present in Poland where a two lane road is made into a three lane road. The center of the road is used as a passing lane and the other two lanes simply move over onto the shoulder. Things get quite interesting when you throw a bicycle on one side and people walking on the other into the mix. Although the roads here are in fairly good condition, the hills here are simply killer. Especially when the sun and heat hit you near midday, it really is a struggle to make it up these things. I had to stop several times to rest in the shade otherwise I probably would have fallen victim to heat stroke. Two flat tires today did not make my trip any easier. What's really bugging me is that although I was able to find the holes I wasn't able to pinpoint the cause.
While struggling up one such ill there were fruit stands conveniently located on the shoulder. At one of these I tried "jugo de cana", which I am fairly certain is juice made from sugar cane, or at least some kind of cane. It was a brown and sweet beverage; definitely not the tastiest in the world but quite consumable. It is kind of funny the way these beverages are severed. All juices at these road side stalls are given simply in a small, clear plastic bag with a straw.
Today I am staying in the third largest town in El Salvador, San Miguel. This place is really quite dull. There is a town square containing a cathedral as well as several other government buildings around it. Near by is a busy market which sells anything from souvenirs to tomatoes and telephones. I tried a typical El Salvadorian food today called "popusas", which is basically corn dough stuffed with cheese and as far as I was able to decipher, pork lard. Strange as it may sound, they are fairly good; similar to quesedillas in a way.
I have managed to find a place to stay here for only $4. For $2 more I could have gotten a room with private bathroom, but I simply couldn't justify the cost. My dinner had cost me $2.25! My room is fairly large and very spacious, since there really isn't anything in it; it's furnishings include only a hammock, bed, and small table. During heavy rain the roof drips a little, which is quite inconvenient when using a laptop, thus I am currently hidden under bed covers. The place turned out to be a good choice however as in the evening they played a movie for free in the courtyard on a large projector, bonus! It was some older Hollywood action flick featuring Bruce Willis; luckily it was in English with Spanish subtitles, so I was actually able to understand something!
This town is very odd in that it basically dies at 6 PM. After making a phone call back home I had intended to visit an internet cafe in order to update my website, however it simply wasn't possible! When the clock struck six every single business and establishment locked it's doors and shut down. All the people seemed to disappear and the town seemed nearly vacant! Disappointed I hurriedly scurried back to the safety of my hotel, as the last thing I wanted to do was walk around deserted streets at night. Tomorrow I move in Honduras, where I won't let myself be screwed over at the border again!