We spent the whole day Saturday living out an old El Salvadoran joke. No, it’s not the one about a guy named Montezuma, although Marce has spent a lot of time on my recently repaired toilet but that’s another story. Let’s just say that I’ve been making the 45-minute, fifty cent, chicken-bus run to the supermercado alone since we got back from the States. It’s not far, it just takes awhile to stop at every shack along the way. We need food aboard Escape Velocity and the local sources, at least those that we’re aware of, just aren’t cutting it, and the open market in La Herradura is a long dinghy run up the river.
There’s a town called Zacatecoluca that boasts not one but two Super Big Grocery stores. We’re told that you walk the half mile out to the asphalt road, hop on a #193, which is the direct bus to “Zacate” but it takes longer than a #495, get off at Arcos where you find a path through the woods up to the overpass to connect to a #133 to “Zacate”. Simple. We played the lost gringo card in earnest. Where is Arcos and why isn’t it on any maps? Luckily Marce, being the trooper that she is, decided she’d better go with me or she might never see me again.
The trip started normally enough with just a half hour wait for the bus and after wedging our American-sized thigh bones into an impossibly small space, we soon had a full bus. But wait, more people got on. The press of humanity and heat started to get to us but every couple of stops saw a troop of a half dozen hucksters holding bundles or bowls or round hangers aloft with all manner of food, candy, bags of juice, pink socks and I don’t know what all. Aggressively they pitched themselves up against the paying passengers standing solidly packed in the aisle and with great effort forced themselves through, around, or over the crowd. It was about then that the driver decided that a little booming party music was in order. It was a nice mix of 95 degree heat, pressing the flesh with total strangers and some serious thumpin’ party bass. In five minutes the process is reversed and then the driver crunches into first gear and we go another hundred yards only to repeat the rave up.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Salvadorans think differently than I do. For example when asked, with my most sincere expression, Arcos? They’ll just say no. End of conversation. Donde donde? At this point one either gets a flood of Spanish or a gesture out the front window. I’d assumed that Arcos would have a couple of signs being as it’s a major crossroad of bus lines. Not as such. Not a one. Nada.
The #495 stopped on a dusty road near an overpass and most people got off so this must be the place. We followed everyone up a dirt path to the overpass. Upon summiting, I breathlessly asked the first guy I saw, “Zacate?” No. You see how this works?
I looked around, the entire area was covered with blue bags, food wrappers, and just plain garbage but even the skinny starving coconut hounds sniffing around can’t find anything to eat.
I looked up and a #133 was trundling up to the side of the road. It was already filled up but I thought we could find a little space to stand. The door opened and I was pushed and shoved aside by the press of the crowd and then the crazy hucksters crashed the scrum and it was all we could do to get on, but the driver kept adding fresh meat to the grinder.
Finally we pulled into a small town and the aisle scrum began to move toward the exit. I really didn’t have much of a choice. We were a little bewildered and not at all sure where we were but we were here…where ever that was.
Music was blaring out of every business and the sidewalks were taken over by venders so that one walks in the street. After wandering around for a while we stumbled into the Super Selectos. What luck. Just what we were looking for. We filled up our shopping bags with a little more than we could carry.
Back in the street we bought a Claro SIM card for $3 from a sidewalk vendor, wandered around some more and went in search of the bus terminal.
By the time we found what we thought was the right bus it was stuffed already but we squeezed in with the hope that someone would eventually get off, but once again the hucksters piled on. The driver slowly pulled across the terminal lot while more and more people jumped aboard. It would be a long ride home.
It started when I got up in the middle of the night to pee and sat down in water. What?! I flipped on the light and found the toilet full to the brim (with clean water, thank goodness.) A long time ago we had a small leak in the toilet pump, similar to when your house toilet runs, but marine toilets don’t work by gravity and require a pump to fill and flush. Anyway, we don’t have a pump leak now, so this bowl full thing was weird. I flushed and went to bed.
The next day, the bowl was full again, and continued to fill up to the brim — but never overflowing — for all the next day. With the troubleshooting help from our Manta owners list we learned that the anti-siphon vent was most probably plugged and that seawater was siphoning up into the bowl after every flush. You can guess what it was plugged with. Now it’s the Skipper’s job.
Jack learned from his experience fixing the macerator pumps a few years ago that you don’t wear your Sunday best when fixing the head. He opted for his birthday suit, removed the hoses and took them ashore to perform a time-honored sailor’s job, whacking the crap out of them.
Yes, he put some clothes on for this maneuver. Once the hoses were cleaned and reinstalled we were back in business.
Every Sunday here in Bahia local expats Lynn and Lou host a cruiser pot luck at their lovely waterfront home a short dinghy ride up the estuary.
Bahia del Sol is a waypoint for boats heading north to Mexico or south to Panama and it’s fun to meet people coming for a few days or weeks or months.
“North or south?” Is always the question, and so far we’re the only ones who say “west.” This is way different from Panama or the Galapagos where nearly all the boats are gearing up to make the Pacific crossing and cruiser talk centers around weather patterns, provisioning, routes, departure dates and radio nets. We’re feeling a little lonely and wish there were other boats here with the same plan.
We whiled away the day swimming and eating and watching the crazy Seattle-Green Bay football game in Lynn and Lou’s comfy living room. And every man there asked Jack if he got the hoses cleaned out ok. Yep, it was that obvious to everyone in the anchorage what he was doing on the dock. Because they’ve all done it. A lot.
I was glad to have the port head back because the next day I was hit with what they call “traveler’s complaint.” This is the first time I’ve had it since some questionable eggplant in Messina, Sicily, in 1984 caused a world of suffering all the way through Italy and Austria back to Berlin, where I finally appealed to a local pharmacy for relief.
“Food or water?” the pharmacist asked.
“Chemical or herbal?” she asked.
“Chemical. Fast. Bitte.”
I don’t know what she gave me but within a day I was back to normal after weeks of distress. This time I waited six days before I sent Jack over to Bill and Jean’s for advice on what to take and they offered a fix that rivaled the German cure in speed and effectiveness. The experience reminded me we need to beef up our medical kit, but thank goodness there’s almost always someone nearby with a quick cure for what ails you.
We’ve had a miserable week. We need to get off this boat!
Bahia del Sol, our temporary home, is calm and peaceful but not much on markets and grocery shopping opportunities. We came back to a boat still pretty well filled with dry goods but without any fresh produce. We asked around for where to find some fruits and veg and the consensus seemed to be the market in the small town of La Herradura, a few miles up the estuary by dinghy.
I’m not sure how I did it, but I managed to convince Jack to get up early Saturday morning so we could make the trek before the brutal sun got too high in the sky.
It was a lovely ride up the calm waters and we kept to the left as advised to avoid the shallows. Even so, as we rounded the last bend and a Joseph Conrad vision came into view the outboard bumped gently on the silted bottom.
It was low tide and the egrets were standing knee deep not too far from us. Jack lifted the engine to shallow mode and we putted toward two young men gesturing from the concrete wharf. They took our painter and eased the dinghy close enough that I could climb over the bow onto the mucky bottom step, then passed our shopping bag to me before offering Jack a hand.
We left the dinghy with them and climbed the steps to the dusty road, then crawled into a tuc-tuc, a three-wheeled taxi, and careened through the streets narrowly avoiding collisions with people and other vehicles and once nearly tipping over when we hit a pothole.
I was digging in my pocket for change to pay the fare when a $1 coin leaped out of my hand and into the street. The driver veered to a stop so I could jump out and retrieve it because you don’t say goodbye to a buck that easily here. I was having trouble finding the coin in the dirt until two men sitting in a nearby doorway guided me to where it had landed, and I waved my thanks and ran back to the tuc-tuc.
The driver stopped in front of a little supermarket but we told him we wanted the mercado and he drove a little further to a stone archway clogged with bicycles, shoppers and vendors. We paid our 25 cent fare and eased our way into the throng.
I instantly broke into a grin. Plunk me down in a market anywhere in the world and I’m happy. This market has nearly everything, from produce and meat and fish to shoes and underwear and school supplies and pharmacy items. The narrow alley was punctuated here and there with street food vendors cooking on portable flat tops or griddles, and the closeness, noise and colors were a sensory assault.
I turned to look at Jack and he was clearly a bit overwhelmed by the intensity. Ha! I thought. He should see the market in Palermo, Sicily. It’s this on eleven, with hawkers singing out at every turn. Here in La Herradura, the vendors were mostly low key until I showed interest and then they stepped right up and helped me select what I wanted.
We filled our bags with onions and bananas and broccoli and papayas, cilantro and strawberries and potatoes and peppers. I could easily have bought more but I have a tendency to overbuy local produce and this stuff is not treated with whatever the US spritzes all over the food to make it last longer. I’m learning to buy only what we can eat in the next few days to avoid having to jettison rotting veg.
We were the only foreigners I noticed in the whole of the village and yet I never felt out of place. In fact I’ve felt more alien in parts of Appalachia or the bayous of Louisiana where locals will stop cold and stare at any stranger who happens by until you’re out of sight. Here our every smile and greeting is answered with the same and we only wish we could transplant some better Spanish into our brains so we’d have an easier time communicating but the local dialect wreaks havoc with our meager vocabulary and we end up resorting to sign language more often than not.
After we left the market we made a quick reconnaissance trip through the grocery store and added a few things to our bags, then crawled into a tuc-tuc to bounce our way back to the town wharf. Our dinghy watchers saw us coming and while one took our bags the other weaseled the dink close enough for us the climb in, this time from a higher step since the tide was coming in. We gave them a couple of bucks and eased into the estuary for the ride home.
As soon as we realized that French Polynesia was not going to happen for us last year we started to plan for this year. We decided to apply for a “long stay visa” because the Americans and certain other foreign nationals are only granted a 90 day visa on entry and It’s not renewable once you’re there. There are 118 islands over a distance of 1200 miles, including the legendary Marquesas, Tahiti, Mo’orea and Bora Bora and it would be nice not to feel like we’re racing through paradise.
We started over the summer researching the process. It turns out you apply at the French embassy or consulate nearest your home. Well, that’s a problem. Where’s our home? We live on the boat. We have driver’s licenses in Florida. Our mail goes to New Jersey. At the time we were in Costa Rica. To further complicate matters, you apply in person, wait while your paperwork gets sent to France or Papeete or wherever, then weeks or even months later you go back in person with your passport to collect the visa. We are transient. Planning to be somewhere for long enough to complete the process is going to be a challenge. Oh, and here’s another wrinkle: every consulate has slightly different regulations. So Miami wants a document that New York does not. Los Angeles requires the documents be in a certain order or they won’t accept them. One consulate requires French translations of everything while others don’t. It’s a dizzying mess.
Once we decided on our extended trip to the US I figured the decision was easy. We’d apply in Miami as soon as we arrived, then go north for the holidays and when we returned to Miami we could pick up the visas and be on our way. That’s when we learned you must apply within 90 days of your arrival in French territory. Rats! We aren’t planning to be in Polynesia until April. So we can’t apply in Miami in November.
This topic is much discussed on the cruising forums and blogs and I read that many people successfully acquire their long stay visas in Panama before or after they transit the canal. Aha! I thought. We’re planning on El Salvador, so maybe that’s a possibility? Thus began a long and friendly email correspondence with a woman named Marina at the French Embassy in San Salvador. Can we as American non-residents apply there? Yes! What documents do we need? What needs to be translated? How long does it take? Marina answered all of my questions promptly and patiently and we left for the US armed with the definitive list of required documents we’d put together before we returned to the boat in January.
First we each need to fill out a two-page visa application. In French. (Thank you Google translate.) Second, we need letters stating the reasons for wanting to extend our stay in the territory longer than 90 days. Ok, that’s easy but it has to be in French and Google translate isn’t quite up to the task. Luckily our friend George or his wife or his sister or someone along the line would help us out on that one. Ditto on letters promising not to engage in commercial activities for the duration. Check.
Proof of health insurance. Oy, that’s not so easy. Jack is on Medicare but it doesn’t do anything outside the country. Same with my ACA coverage. We jumped that hurdle by combining those policies with a travel policy that will ship us back to the states in case of an accident or serious illness. Mostly we just pay out of pocket for any local medical care we need, because the doctors are good, the quality of the service is the same as stateside and it’s affordable. But French Polynesia doesn’t want to foot the bill for anything catastrophic we might need and we understand that.
Next we need bank statements for proof of solvency. Check. Copies of our passports, including the pages showing our Salvadoran visas. Check. A lease or letter from a landlord proving where we will live while in their country. For this we copied our USCG boat document because we will of course live on Escape Velocity. Check
Finally, we need police clearance letters assuring the French that we are not criminals. From our home district. Hmmm. Would that be Pittsburgh, where we lived before? From the town where our mail goes in New Jersey? From Miami, the address on our driver’s licenses? Since we spent a couple of weeks in New Jersey during our US trip we requested the letters from the local police department there. They had never had such a request and it made them nervous. So nervous that, while they did write the letters, they made it very clear in bold type that this only covered their town and didn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. We wish they had left well enough alone and just said we didn’t have criminal records in their town, but we thanked them and moved on. As time passed, though, I worried the letters wouldn’t fly and looked around for other options. It turns out you can request a police clearance letter from the Miami-Dade Police Department by mail for a fee of $5. I sent off the requests while we were in Pittsburgh, asking that the letters be mailed to us in Miami. Done.
When we arrived back in Miami after the holidays we got an envelope from the police that included our original requests, receipts for our $5 checks but only one clearance letter, for Jack. Nothing for me. Shit. We drove an hour to the Miami-Dade records office in Doral, and took a number.
Another hour later we were called up to the window and showed our stuff. The clerk walked it back to the person who processed it and came back to report that the processor only looked at the last name, assumed the second request was a duplicate and sent it off without doing the second letter.
“I’ll do it for you right now,” our clerk said, clearly annoyed that the back office goofed. Five minutes later and a trip to the copy shop and we finally had our paperwork assembled.
Our embassy contact told us she could see us Tuesday morning, the day after our arrival in San Salvador. It didn’t make sense to go all the way to EV then come all the way back again so we booked a room in a cute hotel not too far from the embassy. It wasn’t much fun wrestling our 200+ pounds of luggage all over the place but we managed and had a pretty good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast in the morning.
We were so tired from our trip and preoccupied by the task ahead that when we were admitted to the embassy grounds and shown to the waiting room the “Je sui Charlie” signs and condolence book were an abrupt wakeup to reality.
I took a few minutes to write a short note and thought how far we are from danger at this moment, but how 25 years ago death squads roamed this country and terrorized the population for 12 years. War and conflict and fear never seem to go away; they just move from one place to another. I wanted to sing “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” but after writing my condolences I didn’t feel too hopeful for world peace any time soon.
Marina stepped into the waiting room with a smile and shook our hands and we followed her across a tranquil landscaped courtyard to her office. “It’s a beautiful place to work,” I said. We settled in and Marina started going through our stack of forms and papers. Apparently they were just kidding about the triplicate thing as she returned one copy of each document to us.
She spent a long time paging through our passports and when she saw that we noticed she blushed a little and said, “I’ve never seen an American passport before.”
Our letters promising not to engage in commercial activity caused a scowl and she picked up the phone and had a quick chat with someone. When she hung up she offered to write the correct wording and would we just copy and sign it? Mais oui!
Once the paperwork was sorted and our photos taken (even though two passport photos were part of our required submission) we were fingerprinted on a little digital print machine. Or rather, Jack was. When it came to my turn, poor Marina kept getting an error message that the prints were not acceptable quality. She called in the Consul who offered advice on how to get my prints. They wiped the glass surface, rebooted the machine, asked me to go into the restroom and wash my hands. I came out with my hands up like a surgeon which cracked them up but didn’t make a bit of difference to the machine. In fact we got a new error: not enough fingers. What?! We moved on to my thumbs, which luckily worked, but without acceptable prints of my fingers Marina and the Consul were stumped. The Consul went back to his office to call the Mexican embassy for advice, and we chatted with Marina while we waited.
Finally he returned, shrugged in that typically Gallic way and said what I think was the French version of “Fuck it. Send it anyway.”
And with that we were done. Marina walked us back across the courtyard and promised to email when she had an update.
We still had to get home to Escape Velocity so we returned to the hotel, rounded up our suitcases and bags full of parts and treasures and called a taxi van.
One air conditioned hour later we were lugging our stuff through the Hotel Bahia del Sol resort to meet our mooring owner and EV’s caretaker Bill who came with his panga to transport us to the boat.
We got the watermaker going right away and made enough water to get us through the night, then fell into a deep sleep in our own very comfy beds.
I wish I could say that the last few days of our whirlwind USA tour was calm and relaxing but it wasn’t. In fact, as the sands through the hourglass trickled down to a final few the more frantic we became.
The lengthy lists seemed to get longer as items slipped into mañanaland. At long last we had to return our faithful little Spark back to Hertz and that drew the curtain on the non-stop circle-jerk shop-a-thon. Some things just didn’t get done. My list was looking pretty good but I had a few optional things that frankly we just couldn’t afford to do but we gave it our best effort. Things like a kayak, readily available in the US, all but unattainable where we’ve been cruising. When you add the $300-plus dollars to ship it and who knows how much duty, well let’s just say no-can-do, and leave it at that. We’ll keep looking locally.
Then came the challenge of packing all this stuff into four large suitcases, plus four carry-ons. Yes, you read that right, American Airlines allows each passenger two 50 lb checked bags plus an overhead and an under-seat for free! After us they just might rescind that offer.
Marce quickly kicked me out of the packing room as apparently I’m an undisciplined packer. I will say that a solid week of packing, unpacking, and then repacking is a little OCD for me.
At the airport all went smoothly until Mr. Friendly Check-In Agent suddenly grew squinty eyed, looked up and drilled us with his best Joe Friday stare and said, “You have a one way ticket to El Salvador. Why?” Marce reached into our official file folder and produced a last-minute addition to our papers. Bill at our marina had suggested to ask Hotel Bahia Del Sol for a letter in English stating that we have a boat moored and waiting for us and that we would be leaving by sea. Whew! Feeling less secure and under greater scrutiny we entered the moment of truth, suitcase weigh-in. But when the bags were gently set down on the scales at check-in each one weighed exactly 50 lbs! Any kind of blogger would have snapped a photo of the guy’s face when he shook his head marveling at M’s accurate weigh-in. However, discretion being the better part of valor, I demurred.
As the Airbus 319 accelerated and we were forced back into the full upright-positioned seats, I began to think about our tornado tour of the eastern seaboard and it seemed to come down to a couple dozen unconnected vignettes with the only thing in common being leopard prints. Yeah, you know, leopard prints. leopard hair things, leopard scarves, leopard tops, leopard belts, leopard shoulder bags, hand bags, gloves, leopard bathing suits, shorts, capris, clamdiggers, pants, socks, footwear of all description. Did something happen while we were gone, America? I saw one woman, admittedly in Miami where women apparently strongly identify with large cats, who wore more than five dissimilar leopard prints… simultaneously. Truly an amazing country.
I may have dozed once or twice but I do remember seeing the little plane on the screen right in front of my face, crossing right over Havana. That’s unfinished business but first we have to negotiate Immigration and our old friends Customs with well over 200 pounds of boat parts and food items compressed into every bag we have. Actually we don’t own any suitcases, all of these are borrowed.
The first clue that we were in fact in El Salvador was an announcement that we would be deplaning via roll up metal stairs due to the jetway being broken. Now we have to lug four incredibly heavy bags through the plane, down the stairs and back up two floors to immigration, which was easy to find because of the line that snaked back and forth Disney-style with only two agents at the head carefully looking over everyone’s documents.
Now It was their turn to ask about the one way to El Salvador. M was ready with our get out of jail free letter. However it was in English causing many knitted brows at the immigration desk. I like to think they’ll remember us.
Next stop was Customs. This one we really sweated. I mean what could go wrong with a six foot high stack of suitcases teetering on a tiny $3 luggage cart filled with our whirlwind Xmas largesse:
12 Racor 2010sm fuel filters
11 assorted beefy screw-drivers and racheting wrenches
10 vacuum bricks of Bustelo coffee
9 kilos of various favorite Trader Joe’s products
8 lbs of vital wheat gluten
7 nut drivers
6 cabinet latches
5 LED flashlights
4 three-packs of reading glasses
3 lbs of Vermont maple syrup
2 rigging knives
2 raw water Speedseals shipped via the Royal Post from England
2 Racor 500fg2 turbine diesel fuel filters with vacuum gauges
1 handheld digital depth sounder
1 yogurt maker
1 microwave popcorn maker
1 veggie spiral cutter
1 precious jar of homemade blueberry jam from the kitchen of Nancy Strife
1 Yamaha outboard propellor and
1 Pioneer double din touchscreen, Pandora-ready, bluetooth, iPod accommodating, DVD playing panel mounting receiver (free with credit card points)
This is a partial list.
As we approached the Customs agent M pulled out a Ziploc bag stuffed with receipts that only an IRS agent would want to go through. The Ziploc was a good tip from our friend Walter on Flying Cloud who does this a lot. Really, we felt it could go either way because while we were under the personal limit for declaring items, we did have some unusual things we thought could be confiscated if someone were being picky. It went smoothly until the agent looked up from our declaration forms and said, “Push that button.” Huh? “Push that button” and he motioned toward a large industrial looking yellow button near the floor. Marce pushed it and a green light blinked on. I took that as our invitation to take a hasty leave out into a wave of heat and humanity holding signs and jumping up and down. Hustlers of all manner and description descended upon us. Lottery tickets, a little bag of cashews, a taxi amigo? It was all so disorientating, but while I guarded the bags, Marce came up with a cab and a hotel, so it was off to the Hotel Villa Serena in San Salvador.
So as I was saying, I have over 200 pounds of boat projects to do but the first order of business is our 10:00 am audience with El Salvador’s very own French Embassy where we’ll attempt to score an extended stay visa for French Polynesia. We’re hoping that our two inch thick stack of official papers will be enough.