Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
I'd been thinking that once I got to the coast, things would get easy again. And they should've. Whenever I looked to my right, I could see the beautifully flat coastal plains right there, never more than 1 km away. But for whatever reason, the highway was built in the foothills. Why? Why??? The plains are right there!! Move the highway 1 km to the south and you can build a nice flat straight line! Every so often, the highway would curve to the right and take you only 100 meters from the plains, and I would think we were finally getting out of the hills. But no. That was just to tease you.
I still had 20 quetzales, about $2.50 American. I didn't feel like changing it at the border, so I went to a gas station and blew it on a big bottle of strawberry-kiwi juice and an ice cream sandwich.
Gas stations around here have a habit of advertising that they have free WiFi, and then when you ask, they don't have WiFi. I asked once why they didn't change the sign, and they just looked at me and smiled. I grabbed a piece of trash, used some of my tape, and covered up the part of the sign that said WiFi. I felt better.
I think it may be part of the bigger cultural difference here: people say what they think you want to hear, whether it's true or not, and even (especially) when they have no idea. You'll be told something is right on the highway when it's 30 km away. The next store has what you're looking for (they don't). Go over there and they'll give you a place to stay (they never do). And distances are underestimated to a comical degree. A town can be 40-50 km away, and someone will tell you it's only 8 km. I think my record so far is a 10-to-1 ratio.
Once I got to the El Salvador border, there was a line of traffic over 1 km long. Almost all of it was trucks. Most of them had gone ahead and shut their engine off. I guess things don't move fast at this border. I simply weaved in between them, walked up to the window, which had no line, got my passport stamped, and moved on. Easy as that.
The roads in El Salvador are, for the most part, paved with smooth asphalt and have a shoulder. PROPS.
First thing on my first morning in El Salvador, I broke the front end off my left cleat. Now I couldn't clip in anymore. With a heavy sigh, I put on my sneakers and started riding on my road pedals like they're platforms. At least they're not mountain bike pedals.
A look at the map showed that my destination today was a mid-sized town. Maybe I'd get lucky and find a bike shop or sporting goods store there? As I went there, I finally noticed how many roadside bike shops there are; you only have to look for them. You know that nondescript shack that has a bike wheel hanging from the roof? That's not another kitchen or someone's house like you frequently see, it's a bike shop. Not surprisingly, none of them had road cleats, and I don't think any of them knew what they were when I showed them. But they told me I'd find a place in La Libertad.
There were, of course, no bike shops in La Libertad. A couple people told me I'd have to go to San Salvador, a full day out of the way and into the mountains. Yeah, that's a no. I'd rather continue forward until I find something.
My WarmShowers host in La Libertad, an organic farm, turned out to be 30 minutes by car away from where they advertise themselves to be. Also, even though they knew I was traveling by bicycle, they gave me directions by bus. I still don't know how to get there, but if I were in San Salvador (I was told to take a bus to San Salvador first), I would know what bus to take and what stop to get off.
I think this organic farm, which sells dinner for $10 (about 3x what you'd pay anywhere else), isn't interested in helping cyclists. I think they heard about WarmShowers somewhere and figured they could use it as free advertising. If they're too dense to give bicycle directions to a cyclist or place a marker on a map within 40 km of reality, it sounds like dealing with them would be a bigger headache than it's worth.
And they run a school there. Yikes...those poor students.
I was already tired by the time I got to La Libertad, having done a boatload of hills that morning. The hills plunge into the ocean here, and while on top of a cliff, I finally got my first look at the Pacific.
After hill after hill after hill (and five tunnels!) It was a relief to do some flats at the end of the day. I found a few more roadside bike shops, and one told me I could find a large sporting goods store in the airport. The airport! El Salvador's international airport is not in San Salvador, but the unlikely location of San Luis Talpa, my new destination for the day! I could get cleats at the airport, today!
When I got to the airport, though, there was a problem: you can't enter the building - at all - without a ticket. I tried my best to explain the situation, that I only wanted to buy one thing and come right back out, but to no avail.
Eventually, a superior came over and explained, in English, that the sporting goods store wouldn't have that anyway, it mostly just sells sneakers and soccer jerseys and other apparel. Like a few others, he told me to go to San Salvador. After he learned the nature of my ride, he told me to find the press in San Salvador and tell them what I'm doing because they would love to broadcast that, even do a full interview. I dunno if that's actually true (see above). Even if it were, I would have no idea how or where to find the press, and if I did, I'm still not good at selling myself. And I'm not going to San Salvador anyway.
El Salvadorians don't honk nearly as much as Mexicans and Guatemalans. They don't put speed bumps on the federal highway. Blaring music for no reason still happens, but not everywhere, all the time. And when a dog starts barking, sometimes people shush it. I like this place.
The day before, I could tell that climbing was a little tougher without my clips, but the second day, everything felt more difficult. A headwind didn't help, but my legs were sore and weak all day. I think I was able to switch to using only a few muscle groups and hang in there for a while, but after long enough (like two days), it caught up to me. Today sucked. It was hot. I moved slow. I took a lot of water breaks.
I had a good host though, one that gave good detailed bike directions, even including exactly the length of the mountain climb before his house. In fact, very un-latin-like, he overestimated! It's much better to finish a hill when you think you've still got more to go, rather than the other way around. I managed to arrive about 20 minutes before a powerful thunderstorm. Good thing I didn't take one more break!
Jose has a large family, and since it's common for extended families to live together in Latin America, I never fully understood everyone's relation. Jose's wife whipped up these fried beef-and-potato taco things, I can't remember the name, but it reminded me of what a chimichanga would be if it were a taco. I had barely eaten anything all day, only two bottles of powdered milk and an avocado I'd found on the side of the highway. My goodness, did those fried tacos taste good!
Jose owns two general stores in his neck of the woods, out in the country in the hills, near some beautiful beaches. Every day he drives an hour to the large city nearby and buys stuff in bulk at the cheapest possible prices, visiting multiple large stores each day, and then marks it up from there. On the flipside, he buys 100-pound sacks of corn where he lives, for $30, and sells them for $33 in the city. His employees in his stores make $5/day, which is a perfectly normal rate. Jose himself makes about $70/day, depending on sales. It doesn't make him rich, but by local standards, he's well-off.
Jose's son and daughter are both about six years old. I'm aware that in Spanish, "molestar" means "to bother," but this is how I heard one of their conversations:
"Don't molest me! Don't molest me!"
"I'm not molesting you!"
"Don't molest me!"
Then their mom chimed in, "Are you molesting her? Stop molesting your sister!"
I was unable to explain in Spanish why I was laughing at this.
Interestingly enough, Jose speaks near-fluent French, as well as half-decent English. I happened to be there on the one day the water wasn't running, but even so, Jose made a great host.