El Salvador – As Long As You’re A Tourist…

Central America is a dangerous place and El Salvador is a very dangerous place. That is about all I knew before I came. It can not be dismissed out of hand that El Salvador is a country with an extremely high crime rate, where violence is rampant. In El Salvador a person gets killed every hour. Why the hell would anyone go there? If you dare to go though you will meet some incredibly friendly people, who are very happy you came. You will find that every bus ride is a great adventure, as the infrastructure for tourism is scarce. You will find volcanoes, and charming little mountain towns, wonderful beaches and some of the best sunsets you will ever see. Also you will see a lot of trash and environmental problems. It is one of those countries that has not cleaned up yet to appeal to tourists. There is far bigger problems in El Salvador than fixing the paint on some old houses. But that is exactly what made it so appealing to me. It has not been repainted yet.

My first stop is El Tunco, which is still firmly on the Gringo Trail and a favourite spot for surfers. Here backpackers meet with El Salvadorian surf teachers and rich kids from the city. Families come during the day and they order big seafood plates and buckets full of beers. It’s a sunny and happy place. The Surf is wild and the Sunsets are round balls of fire. When night falls the VIP areas of the clubs fill up with San Salvadorians that order expensive bottles of vodka and the streets fill with backpackers drinking cheap bear from the store. Life is sweet here in El Tunco. A few people had their stuff stolen on the beach, but other than that I heard of no crimes. People must be getting killed elsewhere.

Sunset in El Tunco

Sunset in El Tunco

I move on to Santa Ana, El Salvadors second largest city. It is Sunday when I arrive and I wander around the town with its colonial buildings and cute traditional houses. Everything is closed, but I can hear that people are inside the Cantinas drinking. Every once in a while I come across a really drunk person stumbling home. One guy lies rolling on the ground and his sturdy El Salvadorian wife drags him to his feet, yelling insults. In the evening everybody is out on the main square. On one side some guy sings sappy songs. He is drawing a big crowd and some couples are dancing. At the other side they sell Hamburguesas and Sandwiches.

Exploring the Streets of Santa Ana

Exploring the Streets of Santa Ana

The next day I meet a guy on the square, who lived in the US for 15 years and has recently been deported. I didn’t understand the bureaucracy of his situation, but he has a wife and two kids in Arkansas. Now he lives in a shady part of Santa Ana with some people he met in the detention centre. We talk for a long time and despite being born and raised in this country he clearly does not belong here any more. He is scared of this dangerous country and he misses the amenities of living in the US. A car, air condition and hush puppies. He thought he would only have to stay here for a short time, but his lawyer in the US tells him that it will take month or even years to appeal his case. Meanwhile his wife has to support the family on her own and pay the lawyer.Santa Ana I realize how privileged my tourist view on this country is. It is easy to breeze through, stay in a nice secure hostel and think it is all fine, whilst everyday life is determined by poverty and gang violence. As a tourist we can escape these things. Just don’t walk around in the slums. But what if that is where your house is? I decide my new friend, whose name is Roberto, needs to get his mind off things, so I ask him if he wants to be a tourist for a day. I was on my way to the town of Itzalco when we met and he tells me that there is a nice swimming pool close by. They used to go there when they were kids. So we hop on a local bus, which Roberto thinks is a very dangerous thing to do. I assure him that we will be fine. The bus is a discarded American school bus. The drivers cabin is elaborately decorated in a FC Barcelona colour scheme. At the centre there is a gigantic stitched emblem saying 100% FCB. Plastic bats are hanging from the ceiling and there is a big Bart Simpson doll next to a sticker saying “Jesus loves you”. We are squeezed in three to a row and the radio is blasting 80s pop songs. Phil Collins “One more night”. Next to me sits a mother with her little daughter and a big box full of chicks. They frequently try to escape, curious about the outside world.

Volcano Itzalco

Volcano Itzalco

Itzalco is a lovely little town which offers amazing views of the Volcano of the same name. The pool is great. Fresh water streams trough it right from the Volcano. The locals stare at me curiously as if they had never seen a gringa before. On the way back some guy behind us is complaining loudly about us speaking English. Roberto explains that a lot of people hate Americans because of the role they played during the Civil War. So guess what, the US supported a right-wing military government despite outrageous human rights violations. The death squads of the military regime frequently massacred unarmed civilians, whilst billions of American aid money were flowing into the country. This money supported no one but the ruling elite and the military. Now the civil war is over gang violence has taken over the country. The gangs though mostly formed in the US, where war refugees organized in gangs to defend their neighbourhood. After the civil war El Salvadorians, who committed a crime in the US were send back to their home country. A country that was still struggling with the aftermath of the civil war. Thus there was no infrastructure to deal with gang violence and no prospects for young men. No wonder this guy gets mad when he hears people speaking English.

Volcano Santa Ana

Volcano Santa Ana

The next day I go and climb Volcano Santa Ana. I take a bus up to Cerro Verde National Park where you have to join a guided group. Accompanied by tourist police with shotguns we climb the Volcano, which is strenuous, but well worth it. It offers wonderful views of Itzalco Volcano and the surrounding Landscape, including Lago Cotapeque. The ample crater of Volcano Santa Ana features a sulphurous pool with milky turquoises water. Smoke rises out of the crevices on the side of the crater and the water is bubbly hot. It is stunning. On the way back with the bus we pass by coffee fields. An old lady gets on with a sack full of coffee beans. She says she makes about 10$ in 9 hours of hard work. That day she did not do well. It is not quite season for coffee yet so its hard to find the desired red beans. I think about 10$ a day and how the bus ride we are on already costs 1$. The old lady is all smiles though. When I tell her I am from Germany she says “muj lechos”, very far. It is indeed.

A Crazy Big Finger – Visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

Sometimes we go to places that we have known long before we arrive. They are famous images and they are a symbol for a whole country. So when I came to look for America I made my way through the wild west to see Mount Rushmore. I found that reality rarely resembles the postcards. We have to go and zoom out for ourselves to see the full picture.
From Missoula I hitched a ride with an old drifter called Alan. He lives in Alaska but has been all around the country building mines. He was on his way to the south coast to do one last job. We ride through the wide open landscape, rolling hills and green fields until the endless blue sky grows dark and it starts raining. We stop and stare in awe at two beautiful rainbows that reach across the sky. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALater we pass by the memorial for the battle of Little Big Horn. This is were the Lakota Sioux fought back General Custer and his troops and gained one of the few big victories of the Indian Wars. Alan doesn’t know much more about it. “I just know that we screwed the Indians. And this is a big reservation, so we are going to stop for gas” he says. In the evening we park the car somewhere in the woods near Buffalo, Wyoming. We sit by the fire and drink Whiskey out of a bottle. We talk about mines and hunting in Alaska and I feel like I am in the Wild West. Like we just tied up our horses for the night. Alan tells me how he once went to Mount Rushmore with the Ex wife, but he didn’t think it was all that great. That was in the 70s, he says, when the Indians were still protesting on the mountain. In the morning Alan drops me at a nice spot. It is a beautiful, sunny day and the hills in the distance look glorious. Eventually I get picked up by a brand new Jeep. The car is silver and shiny and smells of new. The driver is on his way to work and very chatty. He owns a fleet of trucks and made some millions, as he says. I tell him I am going to see Mount Rushmore, which gets him very exited. “You have to see Crazy Horse as well. Its so big you can’t even understand it.” I have no idea about Crazy Horse and he explains that it is the Indian answer to Mount Rushmore. “They are basically giving us the finger by building a bigger monument.” Then he asks me if I mind leaving the main highway to use the dirt road, which runs parallel. Naturally I am a bit alarmed at this, but he explains that he wants to take a hit of Speed. This is strangely reassuring and accounts for why this guy is so hyper and talks like a waterfall. Since no great American road trip would be complete without ample drug use I soon find myself cruising along the dirt road, snorting speed and listening to heavy metal. We are rapidly approaching Rapid City.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Rapid City is a small town with eco hotels, micro breweries, back alleys full of art. It also features life sized statues of all the presidents, one on each corner of the town centre. Some of them are quite funny. Nixon is sitting down and has his hands put together like Montgomery Burns when he says “Excellent”. George W. Bush has his dog under one arm, and gives the thumb up to passing cars. He looks a bit moronic. I later read that the artist wanted to highlight the “native optimism about him”. My favourite was Bill Clinton, who looks like a game show host. Some guy tells me that he got knocked over once, but nobody knows how. I chuckle when I think about all the possibilities for drunk interaction these statues offer.
The next day I hitch a ride out to Mount Rushmore with some lady in a Camper, who is touring “all the great sights of America”. We pass through the little town of Keystone, which is the central of tourism in the area. Gift shops, tour company’s, zip lining and so on. We follow the road up to the monument and when we come around the corner we see it for the first time. Lurking out of the forest, towering over the magnificent landscape of the black hills.“Its so much bigger than I thought” the lady says. There is a viewing platform with a museum and a short trail that leads you to the foot of the hill. When you see things in a movie or on pictures your perspective is determined by others. Now you are here and you can walk along the presidents trail and see the whole thing from all the angles. You can go and look right up Washington’s nose. And you can see how Lincoln isn’t really finished on one side. If you look closely you can see what’s wrong with the picture you always had in your head. There is a little Native American heritage village along the presidential trail. It is just a hand full of Tipis and some hides that are hung up amongst them. In the Museum it’s all about the carving and the people involved in doing it. What a great feat of engineering. What they don’t tell you is that in 1868 the US Government signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux that promised them that the Black Hills will forever be their sacred land. Forever only lasted until gold was found in the region. What followed is a long history of war and the near extermination of the Lakota people. And then 1927 they started carving the faces of four white man into the sacred hills, to celebrate 130 years of American history. Today they call it the “shrine of democracy”. I stand on the viewing platform and watch the sun and the clouds paint the presidential faces. Shadows run across their cheeks and sunlight lets their eyes twinkle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Meanwhile in the Indian Camp… Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear had long petitioned to add a representation of a Native American hero to Mount Rushmore, but had been ignored. Thus he got in contact with Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who took on the task of carving a memorial to all Native Americans. When I walk down the long road leading up to the Visitor Centre I wonder how I had never heard of Crazy Horse Memorial before. This was the first time I had ever seen it. It wasn’t a pop cultural image etched into my mind. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd my speedy driver was right; it is to big to really grasp its enormity. When it is finished Crazy Horse Memorial will be the biggest sculpture in the world. The problem is that the monument isn’t nearly finished and the mountain looks somewhat injured by the sculpture. Going through the visitor centre I feel uneasy. The exhibition is a confusing collection of Native American artefacts from all over the place. There is a lot of quotes from famous leaders about how the white people mistreated them. The introductory short film is a strange adulation of sculptor Ziolkowski and his family. They have been sculpting away for some 68 years and so far only the face is finished. I talk to an old Lady who is with a big tour group. She asks me for a cigarette and then says that she has been here 20 years ago and nothing much has changed. In the cellar of the visitor centre I find two Native Americans that sell their artwork, but its dark and uninviting. Upstairs a group of dancers is grabbing tourist to join the Snake Dance. I ask myself if this is a place that is going to help heal old wounds. It sure has great potential. Apparently they want to build a Native American University and a Medical Training Centre, but only once the sculpture is finished. There is much controversy about why it is taking so long. (For more information read this NYT article). When I walk back to the main road I can’t help but think that Crazy Horse Memorial is a place that mourns the loss of a culture, rather than celebrate and shape its future. And there is a big pointy finger to support that notion. The legend goes that Crazy Horse was asked by a white men “Where are your lands now?” and he said “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I hitch a ride back with a guy that takes tourists on Wild West Tours. They go and pan for gold and then visit Deadwood. He explains that you can keep any gold you find. People still secretly hope to get rich. He reckons that is what the Wild West is about. Going somewhere where you can just grab a piece of land, get rich, and shoot anything that is in your way. It is a tempting ideal. I can feel it every time I put my thumb out. It promises freedom and endless opportunity. So here I am. Zoomed out. Now when I see a picture of Mount Rushmore I know that it is surrounded by forest. I know that Pine Beatles have infested large parts of the forest and left the needles brown, the trees dead. I know that for some people it is not a “Shrine of Democracy” but an insult. I know that Bill Clinton’s statue in Rapid City got knocked over by a drunk person. And I will never forget how Alan and me saw that double rainbow. And isn’t that what travelling is all about? To see what is outside the postcard.

Following the Beaten Path in Guatemala – Stuck in Fucking Paradise

I found it really hard to write this post. Somehow I think I did Guatemala wrong. Thinking back I feel like most of my experiences there were somewhat insipid and vacuous. I got sucked into following the beaten Path, the trail. In Central and South America it is known as the Gringo Trail, in Southeast Asia it is called the Banana Trail. It follows all the must see sights and leads to all the must do “adventures”. The backpacker community inevitably works like that, with the main conversation between people being, where do you come from and where do you go. The thing is, I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with following the beaten path. Its really hard not to these days. Is it that I hate “backpacker culture” these days? I think not. Some of my best friends are backpackers. So where did I go wrong?

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Memories of Syria

In light of recent events I have been thinking a lot about Syria. I travelled through Syria in 2010 just month before it all blew up. When we go travel we want to remember every bit of the experience. We take photos, write diaries, buy souvenirs. Ultimately some experiences will have a lasting effect on us and others will be forgotten or obscured. We create a narrative that contains all the funniest, most breathtaking or even most frightening moments. We remember certain people or places better than others. So this is how I remember Syria.

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Adventures in Guatemala – Clown Cars, Sweet Rivers and Trash Talk

After exploring the magnificent Maya ruins of Tikal I make my way down south. I arrive at the bus station in Santa Elena and before I know it several guys are yelling at me eagerly pointing at their respective Colectivo buses. Colectivos are Vans that take as many people as they can possibly fit. They are operated by a driver and a hustler, who stacks people in the bus and collects the money. I got about five of those surrounding me, all of them yelling at me “Where you go” and “Bus leaves in 5 minutes”, albeit non of them know where I am actually going. Continue reading

Glacier National Park – A Magic Place

When I hitchhike around the States I feel that people in general are very scared. When I get in a car the first question was usually “Are you not scared?”. I was just thinking: “Are you?”. Then they ask me about sexual predators. Have I ever been in trouble? Everybody tells me stories about the hitchhiker killer they had in Washington, Oregon, Montana… Urban myths about the boogeyman. But they pick me up, because I am white and blond and pretty and could not possibly be dangerous. What you see on TV is just horrifying. Scaremongering on the news. Could it be that you need an epipen? Ask your doctor for this particular medication. Lawyers searching for people to join their class action suits. If you were treated with vaginal mesh and experienced problems call us. What the hell is a vaginal mesh anyway? Consume something and you won’t be so scared anymore. Buy Bear Spray! Continue reading