Read Part I here.
The Trip to Usulutan
Alex Flores, General Manager of Aprainores picks Julia and me up the next morning at our guest house in San Salvador to take us to the “zone”. Julia is a professional photographer who is accompanying me on this trip. It’s her first time in El Salvador and she’s excited to be coming along. Julia’s an excellent photographer and a great traveler. I have only one reservation and that’s when she let me know she’s “very allergic” to cashew nuts. Fortunately, we’re coming off-season, meaning there won’t be harvest in the trees and the processing plant will not be in operation. I’ve made her promise that no matter how tempting they look, or how hungry we may get, she will not attempt to sample them.
Alex laughs when I ask if we can stop in Olocuilta, on the way to the Bajo Lempa. Olocuilta is famous for its rice pupusas, and anyone who’s lived in El Salvador knows that a trip to the airport, or further into the countryside, isn’t complete without an early morning stop there for breakfast. If you’ve never had the national delicacy of El Salvador, you’re certainly missing something!
Pupusas are kind of like tortillas: You roll the dough into a ball, and then with your two thumbs, make a hole, and stuff it with beans, cheese, sausage or any combination thereof; when it’s in season, a delicious local herb, lorocco, can be added to the vegetarian options. You then flatten them back out, patting them just like you do tortillas, and lay them on the grill to cook. Typically, pupusas have been made out of corn flour, but in Olocuilta, they make them out of rice flour; and they are to die for.
Pupusa stalls line many streets in the major cities and towns throughout El Salvador and typically, on Sunday evenings, Salvadorans will take their entire families to their local pupuseria and order up stacks upon stacks of them. Topped with sauerkraut and hot sauce, and accompanied by a hot chocolate or cold Pilsener beer, it’s a fun communal meal. In Olocuilta, there’s probably over 50 pupersia stalls lining the streets for a block or two off the highway. Everyone, including me, has their favorite.
We drive east down the “autopista” across the southern part of the country. I have lots of memories of doing this exact drive between San Salvador and the Bajo Lempa communities. In those days, we would generally leave our houses around 4 am, stop at Olocuilta for breakfast around daybreak, and then get to San Marcos Lempa (just on the other side of the bridge from San Nicholas Lempa where Aprainores has its office) by about 7:30 am. Then we’d begin the long, very dusty or exceedingly muddy (depending on the season) truck ride down a horrible excuse for a dirt road, braking for cattle, oxen carts, stray dogs, and kids, until we got to whichever community was our destination for that day, or period of days.
The highway from San Salvador to the Lempa River was always a mess; the traffic unbearable, pollution and diesel fumes demanding that you keep a bandana ever handy; car breakdowns, fatal accidents, and robberies were not uncommon and could slow an already long trip into a crawling nightmare. On the other hand, the trips always had their lighter side. Generally, cars and trucks would be stuffed with people working on a project or hitching a ride back home with those who were, and we made the best of crowded conditions with lots of humor. At all of the predictable places where traffic typically slowed to a crawl, women and children would come rushing into the highway with colorful buckets on their heads loaded full with plastic bags of cashew nuts, piles of mangos or other cut up fresh fruit, or baggies filled with “purified” water. This was before the days when Pepsi Cola and other multi-nationals made additional fortunes selling bottled water to those who could afford it. Few people had air conditioning in those days, the heat was grueling, and the sun would beat down on you; those little bags of water and cashews would be scooped up at every stop.
This time the trip went much smoother. Today, the highway is paved and generally speaking, the traffic moves much more quickly. I saw very few women or children selling food along the way.
We arrive at San Nicholas Lempa without any problems. Having heard about some of my experiences however, Alex decides to cross the bridge just to show me San Marcos Lempa, the sister town across the river, where so many of my days out to the communities would begin. Again, I marveled at how easy and painless it was to cross the bridge. In the early 1980’s, many of the country’s bridges had been blown up by the FMLN in an effort to pressure the government to negotiate a settlement to the U.S.-backed war. Makeshift bridges had been constructed, and for years, this bridge was a narrow one-lane bridge;crossing it would take hours as the cars waited for permission to pass. Once the war was over, new bridges were built, but it all took a long time.
So what originally had brought me to these communities? What was I doing in the Bajo Lempa? And what does any of this have to do with Aprainores and cashew nuts?