Just a Little Rant (Day 176) – Zacatecoluca to Usulután, El Salvador

We set our alarm a little bit earlier than we have been to compensate for the early sunsets here and were on the road a little after 7:30. We were a little bit nervous about the route today, since we had heard both that it is pancake flat and that it is way, way up high in the highlands- ‘where it’s cold’. Besides the possibility of a burly day’s ride, we also wanted to make good time to our next stop, Usulután, in the event that we would have to ride further along the route. With the aid of an out-of-date guidebook and an optimistic disposition, I got it in my head that we might want to try to catch a ferry from La Unión, El Salvador to Amapala, Honduras. It is, apparently, a lively ferry and beautiful ride that only occurs one Saturday per month. There are absolutely no references as to when that one Saturday might be. Seeing as how we’re coming up on the weekend, I thought we could give it a try and see if luck was favoring us. The trick is that we’d have to double up on a day’s worth of riding to get to a town that is not exactly on our way in the hopes that there maybe a ferry.

The 'pet' raccoon at our hotel in Zacatecoluca. Also in-house were a dozen birds, a small white dog, a couple of cats, and rabbits.

And so we hauled ass to Usulután only to realize that we had no idea whether or not this harebrained ferry ride was a legitimate plan and then figured that, fast as we were riding, another 50km in the heat of the day was not something we were looking forward to. Even though the morning’s ride had been relatively easy with an unexpected downhill, we decided to finish our ride early and find a hotel room. Which brings me to: hotel rooms in El Salvador. Good lord, are they expensive. Not Ritz-Carlotn expensive or even Holiday Inn expensive, but the majority of the rooms we’ve come across are $20-$30 for very modest accommodations, typically without hot water and sometimes without a private bathroom. Not that this is an unreasonable price by an American standard, but in a country where a full meal can cost $1.25, it seems a bit out of keeping with the standard of living. I guess that the fact that hotel guests are inherently exempt from the same standard of living as lower and even middle class Salvadorans (assuming that hotel guests are vacationers, whether domestic or international tourists), tilts the equation a little bit out of our favor, but I still can’t help but be almost offended when we are shown to a prison cell of a room and expected to cough up several times the national daily wage.

This touches on a subject that we’ve brought up before: how much can a (relatively wealthy) foreigner expect to be treated like one of the locals? In the instance of overcharging for produce, it can be annoying, but is ultimately okay, since the actual amount is typically negligible and we know that we are not, in the end, locals. But I feel like we know what the going rate is for hotel rooms in each country that we visit and in El Salvador we have been charged easily twice the price. The problem is that we really don’t have a choice. There are ‘auto-hotels’, (a.k.a. sex motels) lining the highways that advertise prices in the $5-$7 range for the whole night (maybe they don’t expect guests to actually stay more than an hour or so….), but I have not yet reached the point where that is an attractive option. So, when we are in a town, we just have to suck it up and pay whatever price they quote. I guess I’d feel better about this if they made the slightest effort of cleanliness or amenities. And by amenities, I don’t mean cable TV or minibars, I mean hot showers and enough pillows for the number of guests staying in the room. Not to mention screens on the windows (this is mosquito Valhalla), towels, and toilet seats. It’s not that I insist on American standards when I travel, but as long as I’m paying American prices, I’d at least like to reserve the right to complain.

Alright, that’s out of my system and now that I’ve cleared the air, I’ve got to say that this place is alright. We found a solid spot for lunch and then discovered that Pollo Campero (the Central American version of KFC) features air conditioning and free wi-fi. We bought a cold drink and spent 2 hours getting stuff done! Then, on our way out, we ran into a man who spoke perfect, colloquial English and started chatting with him. Turns out that he was raised mostly in the States and has returned to El Salvador to work as an EMT, kind of an early working retirement. He was pretty excited to be able to unleash his English (we gather that not a ton of tourist pass through Usulután) and took us on a short walking tour, pointing out some of the highlights in town, making suggestions about where we should go, and treating us to the spectacular Salvadoran horchata (different from the Mexican stuff, in that it includes ground nuts and spices- but I’ve got to say that I’ve got love for both styles).  Once we said goodbye to Jorge, we headed to a Mexican place near our hotel that had the most incredible tortas what I’ve had to date (and if you care to review the Mexican portion of this blog, you’ll discover that I’ve had quite a few). Once again, we turned in by 7pm and are planning for an early day again tomorrow. We kind of regret not pressing on today because we just didn’t get that much distance covered and we are really eager to push on to Nicaragua, where we have a cool homestay set up and where we might reconvene with our friend Shaun.

Our encounter today with Jorge also brought up a tough subject, especially in light of our wonderful experiences with strangers in the first half of this trip. While Jorge was nothing but nice to us and seemingly excited to talk to us and show off his country, we really weren’t 100% comfortable. He asked us where we were staying and even offered to walk us to our hotel, which we tried to decline. But when we did so, he put us on the spot, asking us if we didn’t trust him, then making a show of waving to passersby, all of whom he apparently knew and all of whom would, supposedly, vouch for him. But, of course, we were put off by all that. He left us to go to our room with the tentative promise that we would come back down to the street for some food and maybe see him again. But we were done with his company and did our best to avoid bumping into him again. We’ve heard so many stories about people getting robbed or assaulted by people who tried to befriend them: a girl was robbed at gunpoint when she accepted a ride from a friendly local; a woman was violently assaulted when she boarded a public bus alone at night. In these cases, it’s easy to say ‘Well, I’d never get into that car or board that bus’, but I could picture someone saying ‘Well, I’d never let a stranger know where I was staying for the night’. Sometimes, it just happens, even if you don’t intend it to. We are now safe in our room for the night and I am not worried about any further interactions with Jorge- in fact, I am not sure that there is anything to worry about in the first place. But that’s the problem- at what point do you trust someone? We owe so much to strangers that we have met along our route over the past 6 months and wouldn’t take back all of those amazing experiences for the world. But a similar meeting could end badly for us with very little warning, at least in Central America. R says that we have to trust our instincts and play in favor of certain profiles (trust single, young men less, and little old ladies more), but it is a little harder in a foreign country where we aren’t so much on the pulse of the culture. We are, in fact, more likely to be approached by young men who are curious about the bikes and maybe feel like they have something in common with us than we are by conservative, Catholic grandmothers, who don’t speak any English. We basically have to work with what we get and take care not to throw away opportunities because of the possibility that something could go wrong. As always, caution and common sense rules, but I can’t help but feel like a lot of luck comes into play when hearing about travel stories, both good and bad.


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