Saturday, March 26, 2016

Bahia del Sol: San Salvador Day Trip

On Thursday we took the bus to San Salvador to have a look around. We started a bit later than we should have, so our time in the city was limited and we suffered on our return trip, but it was worth the effort.

The typical bus in San Salvador is an old, noisy, non-airconditioned diesel school bus, festooned with colorful paint, graphic art and/or chrome accouterments, usually blaring music and frequently blasting its horn. Passengers are aggressively packed onto the bus by the conductor with no regard to safety or comfort, but to snatch up passengers before the next bus and maximize fare revenues. In the tropical heat and humidity, they can be pretty uncomfortable. However, I am grateful for the fact that El Salvador, unlike Mexico, has very few topes (speed bumps), so at least one’s spinal column, internal organs and sanity remain intact.

We rode one of these typical buses for about 45 minutes to a highway junction town called Arcos and then transferred to a microbus designed to seat about a dozen passengers but in our case carrying about 18 at high speed, lots of swerving, horn blowing and screeching to stops to try and pack another passenger (victim) in.  About an hour later we arrived in the historic center of San Salvador.

The old center of San Salvador is hot, crowded and dirty. Street vendors pack every sidewalk, selling everything from chickens and fruit to cell phone SIM cards and pirated DVDs. So, as you walk down the sidewalk, on one side you have these small stalls and on the other, established brick-and-mortar businesses. It’s a confusing, smelly affront to the senses.

Despite San Salvador’s statistic as having one of the highest murder rates in the world, we felt pretty safe on the crowded sidewalks, which are otherwise a perfect environment for pickpockets and purse-snatchers. Nobody paid much attention to us, those that did gave us friendly smiles more often than not, and people seemed pretty comfortable and at ease. Not bad for a country that ended a brutal civil war less than 25 years ago and a city that currently has a very significant gang problem. I would not walk around most of this city at night, though, just like I wouldn’t in bad sections of Oakland, NYC, DC, etc.

So, while I found the center of San Salvador to be a place better to leave than stay, we did find a gem among all the crap, Iglesia El Rosario. This unique, modern church doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside it is really beautiful. The main structure consists of two large parallel infilled arches, across the top of which spans a concrete roof that follows the curve of the arches in steps. The exterior looks a bit like a very abbreviated European train station, with two arched ends but very little space between. What makes the interior of the church so beautiful are the thick pieces of colored glass that are embedded in geometric patterns into the arch walls and roof. The sunlight streams through these panels of embedded glass producing lovely sparkles of bright colors that brings the dark, cavernous space to life.

Complimenting and in harmony with the interior of the church are a series of concrete and steel sculptures that depict the story of Christ’s crucifixion. In all the churches and cathedrals we visited in Mexico, this story is told in a series of 15 numbered small murals, usually very simple, storybook illustrations clearly designed to reach an illiterate audience. The corresponding 15 sculptures in El Rosario provide just enough imagery so that someone who already knows the story can fill in the blanks. While overall, they are minimalist in nature, the steel story-telling elements are intricately detailed and textured. They are beautiful form of storytelling that are engaging regardless of what one chooses to believe or interpret from the story. I was especially struck by the last sculpture that depicts Christ’s resurrection. Rather than the solid concrete and lifelike steel forms of the previous sculptures, the resurrection is depicted by many small pieces of steel suspended from above that come together create a ethereal, vaporous form that dissipates and diffuses in the air around it.

It is definitely worth riding a crowded bus for hours in the heat, enduring dirty, crowded, noisy streets and the remote possibility of getting caught in gang war crossfire to see this church and, especially, these sculptures.

After visiting El Rosario, we took a cab to a swanky section of town to get lunch. Well, during Semana Santa (Saint’s Week, preceding Easter), swanky San Salvadorans and their neighborhood businesses leave the city and go to the beach, so there weren’t many restaurants open for us to choose from, the shops were all closed and the streets were pretty deserted. We ended up having a passable seafood lunch and were fortunate to find an Italian bakery/gelato place that was open where we picked up some tasty baguettes and croissants and downed some quality ice cream.

To make sure we made our bus connections and not be traveling after dark, we needed to get on our return bus before 4 pm. We got on an absolutely packed microbus with standing room only, which then stopped several times to make sure that every inch of standing room was occupied by a standing passenger, of which I was one.  At Arcos, we changed buses and sat in the blazing heat for 45 minutes apparently because the bus was not crowded enough to leave. Then we discovered the consequences of our destination being on a coastal peninsula during Santa Semana, when half of San Salvador is heading to the beach for the weekend and the other half is heading back from spending the week there. Total gridlock. Three hours on an old school bus in 90 degrees, 90% humidity with diesel exhaust leaking up through the floorboards, hardly moving.  Fortunately, I am a calm and patient man, or at least I am when I realize that there is absolutely nothing I can do about my circumstances. Our bus driver, however, struggled with this Zen concept and believed that loudly blasting the bus horn every five minutes might shift the order of the universe enough to rearrange the molecules of the vehicles in front of us into cool, fragrant air through which the bus could pass blissfully unimpeded. It didn’t work. We arrived back at the marina hot, tired, sweaty and fed up.

I think I visited San Salvador for my first and last time, but Renee informs me that might not be the case as the art museum is supposed to be really exceptional and she wants to eat at the Italian restaurant which was closed this time.  Perhaps if I can see the wine list and it has something decent on it, I can be convinced to suffer another brutal bus ride.

The first bus to San Salvador, before it got crowded

Centro de San Salvador, the clean part, in front of the cathedral

The deceptively unattractive exterior of Iglesia El Rosario 
The uniquely beautiful interior of El Rosario

Sculpture- Ponticus Pilate hand washing 

Sculpture- Consoling the women

Sculpture- Falling for the third time

Sculpture- Being nailed to the cross

Sculpture- the resurrection