El Sunzal is truly magical. It’s a surfer’s paradise, being home to one of the Top 10 breaks in the world, and putting El Salvador firmly on the surf circuit. We’re here because we had arranged to meet Mark Beaumont (www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/cyclingtheamericas/), the cyclist doing the same route as us in the same time… We’d been working towards a meeting since we last crossed paths with him in Utah. Which is why we ended up driving 4 hours into the night last night so that we could see him. He is in El Sunzal to try his hand at surfing.
Our room looks out over the sea. The rolling waves are peppered with the black spidery forms of tens of surfers waiting for the right break. The vista is framed by palm trees, and for the first time in a very long time, it feels like we’re actually on holiday.
Mark is a fascinating character. He’s intense and focussed in that way that you’d expect from a man who has cycled the world in record time. But he’s also great company, entertaining and very interesting. Not what you’d expect from such an athlete (I remember when Mike was training for the Marathon des Sables. His chat disappeared into a vortex of “personal bests”, “calorie requirements” and sleep). We’ve had our ups and downs with regards to how we feel about him – when we first heard about what he was doing (the same route, in the same time and that he had total funding and support from the BBC), we were floored. We were in Vancouver and we spent a day in relative silence and despair, contemplating the likelihood of our film going anywhere, when we were doing a lazy man’s version of someone else’s. But we slowly picked ourselves, tightened our proposition (very much on the love stories, the couples, the experts – rather than a intro to the places we were visiting along the way, which is what he will be doing so well – with a team of BBC researchers behind him) and we came to thank him for being a bit of a talisman. When we crossed paths with him in Utah, it was fabulous. We laughed, got on very well, and resolved to see him again.
Mike goes to the local mechanics to fix the punctured inner tube. He comes back speechless – blown away by the artisanal skill of these guys. Without any of the accountrements of US tyre shops, this little llanteria turned useless rubber into fully operational wheel in less than 5 minutes. For a bill of $3.
Next appointment is in San Salvador, the national’s capital. A city living in the shadow of a conical volcano. Of course we set off later than we intend to, and of course we are driving into the darkness. But no matter, this time we live to tell the tale. We head to a spectacular house, on a hill looking out over San Salvador, owned by a writer, Evangelina, and her husband, Mario, a former industrial rice farmer – from what I could understand, before the civil war, one of the biggest rice producers in the Americas.
The place is like a palace. There’s an entire room devoted to Mario’s love (and competence) of hunting: the floor is covered with animal skins – leopards, deer, erm… – the walls alive with heads of buffalo and antelope; with the centrepiece being a chandelier of antlers. Made by Evangelina herself.
They have 7 daughters. The family is exquisite. Evangelina, with some basic maths, must be in her 70s, but looks sensational. We later meet her 50 year old daughter who genuinely looks younger than me. Evangelina writes for the national newspaper, El Diario Del Hoy, and did a piece of the factors in lasting marriage (her own marriage is 52 years old), which is how we found her (with our Wonder Researcher, Mark Boylan). But her and Mario’s story is much more interesting than we could ever have hoped: Mario lost everything when the revolutionaries seized his huge family rice farm and left him with absolutely nothing. The family went from wealth to poverty, moving to a tiny place where the 7 daughters all had to share few rooms. I have to confess that my Spanish wasn’t quite up to understanding all the details, but Mario freely and sadly admits that it took him decades to recover.
When I asked them how they made it through that time, how their marriage survived, Evangelina said that often crisis drives couples closer together. They had to fight together against the world which had dealt them such a cruel blow (Mario’s farm of course was misrun by the new, land-hungry owners, and the productivity fell away – part of the bigger picture which contributed to the lack of food in the country. Added to this, a blight had attacked rice crops across the Americas, and Mario was at the fore of research to cultivate a variety of rice with resistance. All that research was lost). Evangelina talked about how marriage is like a boat. You have to build something really sturdy before you set sail, and to be ready to be tested by the calm waters and choppy seas which await you. God, of course, is at the tiller, helping you chart a path through these waters. I liked the analogy, personally. I like the fact that you need to be sure of your craft before you set sail, and that you are at the mercy of elements far beyond your control. I just need to understand a little more of the Spanish to bring you more wisdom.
As an aside, they served pupusa, a traditional El Salvadoran dish. It’s their version of the tortilla – only thicker and often stuffed with cheese, beans or meat. As I worshipper of all white foods, I can attest that the cheese pupusa is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Cheese in baked into the bread so it’s one large, doughy, squidgy lump (not unlike myself) and it’s perfection.