I turn left out of the hostel, past the cervecerias with the fat hookers lingering in the doorways, inside I can’t see much, dark, stale, merciless, dangerous, fruit machines, tables, more women. If only Boxhead was still here, I could ask him what they’re like on the inside. They say things to me as I walk past. Chele… chelito… (the affectionate diminutive a favourite recourse of Latin American racism), I love you, chirping at me like a dog. Fat and ugly and desperate and old and sad, they’re there in those doorways from early in the morning until dark when the streets are empty, like a post-apocalyptic city, made to feel more so by the sidewalks in a state of ruin, slabs broken, tiles cracked, dented, chipped, missing drain covers revealing black holes of death, rubble, garbage, whole sections pushed up by tree roots, electrical poles planted in the middle of narrow walkways every few metres no space to circumvent making the pavement useless, turning it into nothing more than a gesture.
I turn right after the cervecerias and mysterious shit-smell onto one of the main thorough-ways. To the left, a quiet park with basketball courts and a church. A bum sleeping on a bench. A few blocks the other way and bums litter the sidewalks, gang graffiti everywhere. Symbols representing the Mara-18. The number 18 or XV3 or 666. In ugly and untidy calligraphy.
Six soldiers carrying M16s walk past me. The pavements are wider here. Razor wire and metal bars still covering every window and heavy metal gates blocking doors. A small river, grey and littered, the stink impossible. Then a plaza. A pavilion in its centre, paint flaking off it like dry skin. A little girl was being pushed on a creaking swing. As always, there were people sat on benches, talking, smiling, tragic, defeated, thinking, laughing, eating, taking time out of the day to just sit.
I walked onto Parque Libertad, the main plaza, staring right into the Gothic cathedral, made more Gothic and dramatic by the pigeons whooshing up into the air in front of it. It seems out of place here, it’s style, against the colonial theatre and Palacio Municipal and the old casino across the way from the theatre. Greasy food stands and shoeshines and trees, lots of trees.
I walked back towards the choked narrow streets of the centre, danced and clambered about the ruined pavement, dodging dawdlers and those who stop without warning in front of you. People selling fruit on the corners. There is a lack of etiquette. Everybody in their own world. People bulldoze toward you, barge past, spinning you round with their shoulders, no second thought. The women are the worst, most of them sturdy, there is only one winner in a game of chicken, like running into a wardrobe. There is no thought to give way, the same with traffic. Rarely somebody will wave you across the street while they wait. Behind a wheel, everyone is in a hurry. People fall out of doorways without looking. Like a hazard perception test, lose awareness of your surroundings at your peril. To walk these streets angers me.
In the centre there is much noise. Ear-splitting music blasted outside of shops, fucking reggaeton, just pure shit. Rather than a culture of silence to bury the past, a culture of noise to ignore it.
I make the hostel. An oasis of peace in the middle of it all. I intended to take pictures. I didn’t take many.
(I should work for the Santa Ana tourist board shouldn’t I?)
There is plenty of beauty, plenty of good too. The centre has spoiled me. Only the centre is clogged and crowded, and everywhere you look you’ll find dirt, but away from it the streets are quieter, quiet like a tomb. It’s another day of blue sky, everything naked in the bright sunshine, and from the roof of the hostel I can see all around the city the low mountains. Nice colonial architecture (but at what cost to the indigenous people eh eh?), shabby and crumbling. People will always say hello and they will always wish you buen provecho in a restaurant and they will always be ready to help you. I love this city.
Afterwards I walked to her house, but before six o’clock because when it darkens the streets vacate and they become ghost streets and it’s spooky.
I walk up through the market which occupies several blocks south west of the centre. With soaring stores of oranges, avocados, tomatoes, onions, not-so-fresh fish, the fruit all looks good, I can find clothes, toiletries, hats, backpacks. However, at this time it’s quiet, closing for the day. Most often it is full of people. For some reason one of the bus terminals is in the middle of this chaos and chicken buses are trying to drive through all the people to reach the terminal and the people just go around the sides of the bus like water around a rock.
In the streets nearby electronics and other worthless crap are laid out on the ground on mats and plastic sheets; stolen mobile phones, old videotapes, tools, kitchen items, irons, worn shoes missing the laces, mostly phones. I can’t believe some of this stuff is actually for sale.
We go to my favourite café together, and my friend in there, who I think believes that I am a professional footballer due to a misunderstanding, he puts on bossa nova music when before it was silent the way I like it. He always does this. Bossa nova versions of jazz standards. On a shite-o-meter of music, bossa nova is probably only just below reggaeton.
I stayed at her house. I woke early and read a little in the patio with the chatter of the birds behind me. The newspaper says another police shot dead, murdered by gangsters while off-duty, already seven police killed this year, already 250 murders in 2015, at a rate of 15 a day. I can’t comprehend this much violence. El Salvador is the second violentest nation on earth outside of a war zone. Only Honduras is more violent.
After breakfast we lay on her bed just talking.
So what are we going to do today?, she asked me
I want to go to the theatre.
We can do that.
She showed me old photographs. What happened? I asked, you used to be much more beautiful. (I am funny)
Then her grandmother was calling her. She went to see what it was about. I could hear it faintly.
GET OUT OF THAT ROOM! DON’T YOU KNOW HE IS A MAN? WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THERE ANYWAY THAT YOU HAVE TO BE LOCKED UP TOGETHER!? GET OUT!!!
Her grandmother was furious that we were in her room together. It was disrespectful although the bedroom door was wide open. We should have been in the front room. There was nobody else in the front room. I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to cause offensive.
I left soon after, disgraced, when really I was in the clear because I could play the ignorant, I didn’t know any better, put it down as a difference in cultures, card. I wanted to apologise but with my Spanish lumbering like a dinosaur I thought it was probably best to not say anything at all except for goodbye so that’s what I did, I said goodbye and she gave me a big bag of oranges, the grandmother, and I felt even worse.
I walked toward the hostel. Although it was midday the streets were still quiet. I walked by big blocks of fresh blue paint on white walls, gang tags freshly painted over. I always enjoyed walking back to the hostel, along those quiet streets, quiet until the market which I would usually avoid.
I felt terrible about offending her grandmother. It’s obvious, you idiot, despite the culture war raging, the culture remains fundamentally conservative, shaped by tradition, family values, religion, sexual morality, two unmarried people cannot lie together! I should have guessed it, but I’d let my guard down, I’d gotten too comfortable. This attitude might exist at home too, I don’t know, but my grandmothers are bien tranquila. Although I might not like it, I think contact is missed through such formality, as a guest I have to respect it.
Then I thought of my own problems. I have less than two weeks remaining here, I haven’t seen a lot of the place and I’m not sure if I have foolishly allowed my time to drift by as if I was going to be here forever. Then I think, it doesn’t matter. The best days are sometimes the first, sometimes the middle, and even sometimes the last. All these days have been good.