Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Back on the Horse

It's Tuesday evening, I've been here in Suchitoto for just over a week, and I'm once again sitting beside the pool on the terrace of the El Tejado. Maybe, just maybe, I'm finally ready to get back to this public journal. There were a dozen reasons why I kept stalling, but they have dissipated into feeble excuses. Last February, I was compulsively faithful in making an attempt to write something every day, no matter how tired or uninspired I felt. This year, the longer I avoided the keyboard, the more daunting the prospect became.

My hands are stiff and the words feels forced, but I'm hoping my over-taxed brain and calloused fingers will limber up the more I scribble down. There's no way I'm going to try to start at the beginning and go chronologically through the past eight days in El Salvador. Or the six weeks of preparation that began long before I even left Canada. I will touch on the high points, and probably some of the lows, but let's consider these first few tentative steps my way of getting back into the rhythm of writing.

If anything, Suchitoto is even more beautiful than I remembered. Thankfully, the streets are still as cobbled, the locals as friendly, the food as wonderful and inexpensive. Lunch at Villa Balanza, including a freshly made fruit drink, costs $2.50. I received sincerely warm greetings from the staff and owners of the hotel, most of whom now address me by my first name. They all seem to have great difficulty with that final hard 'd', so their version comes out musically, with two syllables, sounding like 'Tey-ah'. But their English beats the hell out of my Espanol, and anyway, their pronounciation is so much more lyrical.

I upgraded to one of the new rooms with a view, and it is stunning. Every morning I awaken just before dawn and every morning I marvel at the wonder of the fierce amber sun climbing the sky, previewing its appearance with a spectacular uplighting of the low clouds that cling to the horizon. At home in cold grey Canada, it takes several seconds of the insistent alarm clock to drive me from my nest. Here, I'm awakened as if by a gentle and loving tap on the shoulder, or some mysterious and alluring voice. No, it's not the ubiquitous roosters, as they still crow all night long and I hardly even notice them any more. The way you get used to a two am train whistle if you've heard it nightly for ages. Regardless of the amount of sleep I've managed, I'm always up before six. This bit of magic will never pack in my home-bound suitcase, but I'll relish the long days while I'm here.

There are two enormous differences between this return to paradise and my trip last year. No Frank. No Eric. I can't tell you how much I miss you two every single day. At Escuela, here at the hotel, at the watering holes and pupusa joints. Uno Amigo where there were Tres. The division of labour and talent last year, the constant and encouraging moral support, the daily sharing of the load and the laughter, made the whole undertaking in February of 2010 a virtual walk in the park.
The almost overwhelming challenges this year, at least the way I saw them last week, made me feel as if there was a stone in my shoe.

I've lightened up some now, even felt a smile creasing my sunburned cheeks several times over the past two days. There is a spring in my step, which is something powered more by what is in my heart than the strength in my legs. I am determined to get on with things with all the humour and patience and understanding I can muster, to give to the Project all that I can give. Selfishly, I know that's the easiest way for me to benefit most from this experience. Last year, I learned much more than I taught. I hope I remain open enough this time to get to chapter two of that same book.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Home Again, but Still Thinking of Suchitoto

This blog began in Baden exactly one month ago, so I think it appropriate that I make at least one more entry from here. I'm far too exhausted to even think about any kind of an over-view. Not tonight anyway. I've just stumbled in the front door, it's closing in on midnight, and I have an eight am call at the Festival.

Thank you for all the support and positive feedback. My experience in Suchitoto was more life-changing than I ever would have dreamed. Keeping this journal has been an interesting challenge, especially on those nights when the Internet connection failed, or the times when I would rather have just gone to bed. I'm not sure if and when I'll give up the blog, but before I do, I intend to publish several more photos and perhaps a few comments. So stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Last Post?

With nothing on the agenda for today, I could easily have slept in this morning. But the day dawned bright and inviting and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste, so I found myself out on the terrace well before eight. Sometime around eleven, Hector, the videographer from Es Artes, swung by with a request to record our feelings about the project. The office is less than a five minute walk down the street, so I took another quick swim to cool off a bit and then we walked over for the interview. Tito played translator and then the three of us drove to Villa Balanza for our last lunch there.

The heat of the day felt particularly brutal today. After lunch we returned directly to the hotel. Mad dog and Englishman, we realized this was our last chance to return home with something beyond our wonderful memories. Tan time. With the quenching water of the pool inches away, we were able to withstand the blast of the sun for short spells. Frank has a thermometer built into his travel alarm and out of curiosity, he brought it outside. In the shade of the patio shelter the temperature was a relatively chilly 99 degrees F. In the sun, we got a reading of 121. Not surprisingly, we now each resemble a ripe tomato balanced on a red pepper. Nothing like a sunburn to make the cramped five hour flight tomorrow as comfortable as possible.

Ed Daranyi and some others from Es Artes arranged a beautiful last supper in the mango courtyard. I counted heads; there were fourteen of us gathered around a table, sharing chicken and vegetables cooked under the stars on a BBQ borrowed from the kind folks at Balanza. Toasts were exhanged, a couple of short speeches were delivered,including an eloquent thank you from the normally quiet and shy Evelyn, office manager for Es Artes. I can think of no more fitting conclusion to our visit to Suchitoto than this memorable evening. Even the moon popped up above the back wall of the courtyard right on cue and quickly climbed the sky, shedding its amber vestments and shining a brilliant white light down through the branches of the mango tree. If ever I make it to heaven, I hope it looks like this.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Last Day of School

We paid our last visit to Escuela Taller this morning. Valentin and I screwed some hinges onto the masking flats while Frank and his eager female apprentice Arely and tiny Nelson did some final touch ups to the paint job on the ticket/information booth. For the benefit of Edward's rehearsals on the modular stage, which for the time being is set up at Escuela Taller, Anselmo and I taped out the chapel's column locations on the floor. Before Frank and I packed up all the personal tools we had brought south with us, fun-loving David presented each of us with a small plaque he had made. On the back of mine he had neatly penciled in: DE DAVID PARA TED UN GRAN AMIGO. GRACIAS POR COMPARTIR EXPERIENCIAS. Then Mario surprised me with a hanging 'sign' of my first name, delicately cut from a piece of steel by hand and distressed tastefully and artfully. In both cases all I could say was 'gracias'; I hope they could both tell by the look on my face how deeply I was touched.

After a quiet lunch at Gringo's (many of the restaurants in Suchitoto, including Villa Balanza, are closed Mondays - another Stratford parallel) we returned to the offices of Es Artes and took measurements of the courtyard. Perhaps the dream of an outdoor performance/rehearsal space there will become a reality some day. If a stage under the magnificent mango tree is ever built, it's unlikely I will be fortunate enough to be involved in its construction. But anyone who knows me could guess I would try to at least put my oar in the water.

It was overcast and close today; the pool was a welcome sanctuary. Having finished what we came down here to accomplish, our energy finally deserted us this afternoon. We roused ourselves for an early evening walk downtown. While sipping a cerveza at the Internet Cafe we ended up having an interesting chat with a young professor from San Francisco who regularly visits Central America to teach art. After saying farewell to her, we stumbled down the tumblestone streets to our hotel, stopping en route to pick up the pizza we had ordered from around the corner an hour earlier. We carried it back to El Tejado and shared it on the dining terrace with our two favourite waitresses/desk clerks. Rosa Alba and Yany. We (Meester Frahn and Meester Teh) are the lone guests at the hotel tonight, so their duties are light.) Their English is as limited as our Spanish, but their dark eyes had lit up when I asked them if they felt like having some pizza tonight. 'Pizza!?! Si! Gracias!' Some words are universal. The boss had been part of the pizza 'conversation' and her reaction had been a sweet smile, so I knew we had not violated any rules of etiquette or hotel policy and that the girls wouldn't be in any trouble.

Tomorrow is our last full day here. Sadly, it will soon be time to say goodbye to the people, the views, the heat, the roosters and dogs, the cobblestoned hills, the beautiful town of Suchitoto .

Sunday, February 28, 2010

No U-Turns Allowed

This morning, at the last minute, we had to cancel the planned trip to the Pacific beaches we had been so looking forward to experiencing. In the wake of the monstrous earthquake that recently devastated parts of Chile, warnings had been issued for a tsunami that threatened the western coast of Central America. We had arranged to borrow the Es Artes pickup truck and already had our overnight bags packed in the back seat when we received word of the danger.

Truck keys in hand, we decided we might as well take advantage of the situation. Frank suggested we drive down the long steep hill to the nearby port on Lago Suchitlan. We had already made the trip on foot and didn't need to prove anything by repeating that hike. Maybe a boat trip would take some of the sting out of our disappointment.

Upon arriving at the sharp bend in the road that leads to the right and down to the tourist centre and concrete boat ramp, we noticed another road veering slightly off to the left and over a hill. Not in any hurry, I decided to steer the truck that way and see where it led. The initial stretch was lined with expensive homes mostly hidden behind impressive gates. After a bit, the road began to descend sharply into the valley and the quality of the houses followed suit. As the road grew steeper and narrower, we began to have misgivings. With no place wide enough to turn around, continuing downward seemed to be the only option. The brakes were holding up better than my nerves as the prospect of finding a turn-around spot grew dimmer and dimmer. Eventually the twisting and turning cobbled road simply ended and became an unused footpath through the wooded ravine.

Only one choice remained now: backing up the hill to a wider spot. After nudging the shift lever into reverse, I eased out the clutch and applied some throttle. With most of the weight of the truck bearing down on the front wheels, the well-worn back tires immediately started to spin on the slippery cobblestones and we made zero progress. My palms were becoming moist by this point, and it wasn't just due to the heat. A second attempt with more gusto only made the tires spin faster and we could smell the acridly distinct aroma of burning rubber. We could always walk home to the hotel, I thought, and I hadn't wrecked anything yet; but the prospect of telling Tito and Tatiana that their truck was in the ravine was more daunting than the hill.

Pushing in the clutch and relaxing the brakes, I deliberately let the little Nissan roll as far forward as I dared, even though that meant we were practically in the woods. With my right arm stretched across the top of the seat and my neck twisted into a pretzel to allow a better view over my shoulder, I willed the truck back up the hill, the rear tires screaming, scrabbling for traction on the smooth stones. The curves were coming up fast, but I had to maintain precious momentum by keeping my foot to the floor as we bounced and lurched drunkenly backwards up the hill. Finally, we reached a place on the road wide enough to get the nose pointed in the right direction. Seconds later, we passed another truck barreling down the hill. They say timing is everything. Had the other truck arrived at one of those blind curves just a few moments earlier, this story might have had an entirely different ending.

And what is the ending? We drove down to Puerto San Juan without further adventure. Unable to negotiate a reasonable rate on a boat tour, we walked along the shore and watched a couple of farmers repairing a barb wire fence that reached out into the lake. A dozen cows grazed on the scruffy grass and weeds. Judging by the number of cow pies festooning the ground on the public side of the fence, there had been a prison break, and it hadn't been recent.

Back at our own ranch, we enjoyed the sun for awhile, walked into town to buy some bananas and the last two loaves of bread at the bakery, and then spent the remainder of the day in blissful indolence. We failed in all our attempts to find live coverage of the Canada/USA hockey game and had to rely on CNN and CTV web headlines to keep us up to date. Ironically, it was the BBC online service that provided the joyful news of Canada's victory.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Moon Over El Salvador

Technically, the moon is not full this month until tomorrow night. But the friendly white face I see staring back at me from a cloudless sky is pretty darn close to perfect tonight. The setting of the sun and the arrival of a gentle breeze drew away most of the blistering heat of the day, leaving just enough to make walking downtown a pleasure. I know snowbound readers must be getting tired of weather updates from the tropics. Sorry. Your cold reality will soon be mine as well, so I'm trying to appreciate the climate here as much as possible in my last few days. Writing about it helps sharpen my awareness.

I played Ted the Tourist today. After a late breakfast, I donned my full Gringo costume of bright white New Balance running shoes (does mentioning the brand name merit some compensation? Even a tee shirt or a pair of shoelaces would be nice) and a camera slung over my shoulder. Frank and I trudged up the hill in the scorching heat to Pascal's gallery. I had noticed a few interesting pieces in the gift shop last week and this morning I chose a few souvenirs to take home. The salesperson carefully wrapped up each item in newspapers, and when I expressed concern that they might be damaged by airline baggage handlers not known for their light touch, she added a blanket of bubble wrap around each bundle. I left the store with everything packed neatly in a paper shopping bag with loop handles, just to complete the tourist image.

The rest of the day was spent acting like someone on vacation. I slathered on some sunblock and hung around the pool, in and out of the water, for the rest of the afternoon. The remainder of this lazy day was equally uneventful. Downtown for drinks on the square and then a simple but delicious pasta meal around the corner at Harlequin's.

And now I'm alone on the hotel terrace. Off in the distance I can hear loud dance music playing, muffled and not at all unpleasant. The pool pump had been making soft splashing noises up until a minute ago, but it just shut itself off and the silence of the night is deafening. There is not one dog barking, not one rooster crowing. Other than the crowd at the disco, has everyone else gone to San Salvador for the weekend? And taken all their pets and livestock with them?

If I wake up in time in the morning, we're planning on driving to the beach tomorrow.It's apparently a two and a half hour drive, so we'll probably stay overnight at the ocean. That way we'll be able to avoid the San Salvador-bound evening traffic, watch the sun set over the Pacific and see the entirely full moon reflected in the water. Because I don't intend to lug my lap top to the beach, tomorrow is shaping up as a blog-free day. Maybe we could all use a break.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lunch on the Run

A couple of days ago, our traditional lunch at Villa Balanza was a little more traditional than I had expected. Tatiana knew from our habits that we would show up around noon; she and a few others from rehearsal at the chapel arrived moments after we had taken our seats. Special arrangements with the owner had been made. We weren't even offered the usual choice from among the three daily specials. 'Don't worry about it', Tatiana said. 'You'll like it'. Hmm, I thought. That sounds ominous.

Before long, two waitresses bearing large trays glided our way and set down identical meals in front of each of us. Except that maybe Tatiana's serving looked a little more generous. Hmm, I thought again as I eyed the dish before me. Not wanting to initiate an international incident, I politely began to pick away at the scrawny leg (perhaps) sitting off by itself on the plate, a safe distance from the vegetables. It seemed to be meat of some kind, but with more bones than anything else. The little bit of flesh there was proved fairly tough. Maybe that's why the vegetables were nervous. If it was chicken, this particular specimen must have spent every day of a long hard life running from the Colonel. I can't remember which of us innocents finally posed the inevitable question. Garrolo was the answer. 'Oh, what's that?' I asked. Lizard. Despite what everyone always says about exotic food, garrolo doesn't really taste like chicken.

Frank and I left the restaurant intact, neither of us stretched out in agony in the cargo bed, and Tito drove us back to work at Escuela Taller. One of our guys was out behind the central building watering the pavement when he spotted something up one of the trees and shouted out a battle cry - in Spanish, of course. You guessed it. The 'before' version of today's special. The rest of the guys were out there in a flash, excited as anything, throwing sticks and trying to capture a free lunch. But the garrolo was even faster, and he dashed into a nearby pile of scrap wood before they could even think about sticking a fork in him.