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Monday, June 19, 2017

Kidnapped: Part Five

The next couple of days rolled by in leisure, with no obligations. We can do whatever we collectively want to.  So naturally, we go shopping.  

Rob wants to stock up on the basics; socks, underwear, t-shirts etc.  Dax and Rob also buys some clothes for the kids.   One of the kids is maybe 13 years old, skinny as in growth spurt skinny, like he just grew three unexpected inches.  He wasn't tall by any stretch of the imagination, but slim, with hair buzzed almost to the skin, with black eyebrows that contort his face to a look of pure hate.  Every time I look at him he is just staring back at me with those mean eyebrows and eyes that shoot bullets.  Where do these kids come from, whose are they?  Where are their parents?

We go into a Santa Ana commercial district where they are selling practical things like lamps, sofas, kitchen appliances, shirts, shoes, under garments.  And they are inexpensive, not cheap, but inexpensive.  T-shirts are 2 dollars and it looks to be of quality.  I personally didn't am not buy anything due to limited luggage room, Rob however, is buying like he needs to fill an empty suitcase.  

We go to the city square to see the vendors and look at the Cathedral of Santa Ana.  One thing I notice is a complete lack of postcards.  Well, of souvenirs in general; there are none.  No magnets, no stickers, patches, or miniature clay pots or anything that says Santa Ana or El Salvador.  Everything sold is practical; cigarettes, food, keys, car parts.  With absolutely no proof, just a hunch, I feel like this is some sort of statement on the El Salvador tourism rate.  It is clear, that unlike Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize, tourism is not El Salvador's principle industries.  With that said the cathedral is impressive, the town square is nice surrounded by big stately buildings that even run down they look pretty amazing.  I will totally send a post card from this place if I can find one.

On Sunday, Dax goes to one of his jobs.  While looking for teaching positions in Santa Ana, after years of teaching in Metepán, Dax would take on odds and ends.  This Sunday it is ref'ing basketball at one of the local Santa Ana recreation centers.  Dax is a large man.  Cardiovascular is not in this guys routine.  Rob and I have to stop in and see what this entailed.  

When we arrive, Dax is laying down in the grass under a shade tree.  This aligns perfectly with Rob and I's understanding of what Dax ref'ing a baseball game would look like.  In truth, he is on a break, after just finishings a game and now the other ref is working a game.  Once she is done, he will be up for the next game.  Three games for each ref, six games in all.  Again we didn't see Dax in action, but watching the lady ref, it was akin to what you would see at a high school basketball game, pretty legit.  

One morning the Villa has a guest of honor.  Murian, an Argentinian dancer is stopping through to perform with the local dance troupe on the way to her teaching engagement in Guatemala. We all see her at breakfast.  Once she left Maria starts giving the background on her and Rob is getting more interested by the second.  Rob engages her for a bit and gets the details of the dancing show tonight.  Rob promises to go and we are off the Teatro National de Santa Ana that evening to watch her dance.    

The building is old and nice.  Pretty standard theater with the center stage with red velvet and gold trimmed curtains, ceiling frescos, red chairs with wooden armrests, balcony seating and honored guest stalls to the left and right above the stage.

The show consists of at least a dozen acts by the various groups of dancers with contributions from the guest of honor.  It was everything from grade school youngsters, a special needs performance which looked like it was choreographed by the same guy who did the Dude's landlord's, Marty, performance piece in The Big Lebowski, to teenagers and young adults hip-hopping the wood off the stage floor.  Several of the groups have multiple acts prepared.  It seems interminably long.  

At the intermission it is obvious everyone is thinking about how much longer we are going to stay.  Parts of the group wants to leave now, during intermission.  Rob wanted to stick around until this girl's last performance.  We decide to move closer to the door and stick around for four more acts - the fourth being Murian's last act. I doubt Rob would admit it, but I think he is trying to get to know Murian better.  

We go back to the Villa with dreams of bumping into Murian again floating through Rob's head.  After settling in, we reconvene back at the pool, which is our custom now.  DJ Rob has the music broadcasting through his portable speakers, and Maria comes by.  Rob casually asks when Murian would be back and piecing together the words I think I understand and Rob's crestfallen sigh. The answer is: She is not coming back to the Villa.  She has other accommodations for this evening.  That is the end of the chase for Rob, but he easily dusts it off and is soon singing along with his music. 

Later in the evening we are back at the Villa unwinding having a beer and some people chilling at the pool others in Rob and Dax's room.  I walk up to their room and they invite me in through the open door.  I walk in and have a seat to see what their room looks like and what they are doing.  The angry kid with the eyebrows is playing a video game while everyone else watches in a daze.  I figure out he is playing Grand Theft Auto (GTA).  

I have never played the game or really seen more than what I have seen in commercials.  GTA tends to be in news for other things so I am aware of the game and have a general idea that they push the envelop of what is appropriate for video games.  I know it is violent.  I watch the kid play.  They all go the same: He leaves a hospital bed, walks out the front of the hospital and starts killing everyone on the screen.  Cops start showing up, he bum rushes them for a bit and gets weapons of choice and then retreats killing the whole time.  As he moves into the level five wanted category, the storm of officials chasing him keep increasing not only in number but in types:  ATF, DHS, Police, National Guard.  Then he eventually dies as does his laughter that had built up as fast as the response team.

I am not convinced he even knows there is a plot and objectives to the game.  Through a translated conversation, Rob confirms the kid knows how to play, but just likes killing.  This kid hates me.  He asks if I want to play, after some cajoling, I take my first swing at GTA.  Not really knowing what I was doing, having learned nothing from the lessons just provided, I start off with a low profile until I get a car.  Then I go for chaos followed by calm followed by chaos.  Somehow out of it all I complete some sort of check point and move onto a new level. 

Flying is somehow involved in the next stage, and I have to navigate toward checkpoints in the air.  I miss the first one immediately.  Killer points and laughs at me yelling something disparaging in Spanish.  I hand the control back to Killer who has lost an ever so slight edge off those menacing eyes.  He takes his turn and he is a boss.  He knows how to play, just doesn't like to; he just likes the killing.  Now we are alternating turns and my second attempt is a huge improvement after watching his go.  As I am playing he is stating how he is going to complete it on his next turn.  Nope, well you are not going to beat it.  Nope. And finally with a mix of you are not going to beat it with I am going to so beat this, he goes back to the starting scene in a hospital.  I have had enough of this evening - Good night. 

Uh-oh, the captors are starting to put the screws to me.  I am looking to move on and need to start looking at buses, planes, hotels etc for my escape - and they know this, I know they do.  I figure the only way to get away from these hombres is to escape to a land of tougher hombres.  I need to figure out how to get to Honduras, but captors threw a wrench into the plans: Day one no internet.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Kidnapped: Part Four

The next day is another slow start; too many drinks and too many songs.  I met my captures for breakfast and make a plan.  It is volcano day.  

I've read, one must go with a paid group which includes protective police officers along the route and there is only one group departure per day.  The costs would include a small fee to the group guides, a small fee for the police protection, and a small fee to get into the park/volcano.  All very reasonably priced, I just find it funny how it is all broken down and received.  Dax has to run some children around to their aunts and parents before anything can happen.  Dax is late leaving and immediately puts me on edge for making the tour group.  Rob isn't convinced you can't just go up on your own and is non-plussed about Dax's late leavings.

As Dax's absence grows so does my calm and Rob's too as far as that goes.  Rob starts cursing Dax mentioning how he tried to light a fire under Dax to start moving, but Dax was on his own clock this morning.  Dax finally returns at 10:30.

The volcano is an hour drive away and Dax convinces Rob he should drive as he knows where it is and is sure not to make a wrong turn.  Dax and Rob in the front, Enrico, the boyish looking 21 year old, Dax's young nephew, and myself are in the backseat.  One of many times I am riding in the back seat uncomfortably with at least two others.  Dax, really does seem to be running some sort of child care service out of the Villa.  Dax manages to shave 15 minutes off of the drive time but we are still pulling in 15 minutes after the guided tours is scheduled to leave.  I am loosing hope assuming we didn't make the cut as we pull up the long drive to the starting point.  

A 100 meters from the covered building we see a trail of people walking by.  Dax pulls over, and Rob asks if this is the volcano tour.  The respondent looks confused.  Dax asks if this is the volcano tour, and the respondent immediately confirmed it is indeed the tour.  Rob tells me to get out.  I still have no understanding of what just happened and ask, "Is this safe?"  "Yes." As I open the door no one else makes a move to get out.  "Wait, am I the only one doing this hike?"  Mutterings from everyone in the car "umm yeah buddy", or "I think I am going to miss this one.", or "Have you seen the shape I am in, there is no way I am getting out of this car."  

"So this is safe right?"  I don't see a police escort just a string of about 40 people walking on the side of the road.  
"Yeah yeah this is the scheduled tour group."  
"Ummmm, O.K., how am I suppose to get a hold of you?  You know, find you when the walk is over?"  
Rob to Enrique, "Enrique give him your phone."  The last stragglers of the group are almost to us.  
"Give him your phone."  

Despite Enrique's confused look he hands me the phone through the open window of the closed car door and tells me it doesn't have a password.   At that moment the last person of the group approaches me as Rob and crew pull away.  The guy tells me he is the trailing guide and if I want to join I need to pay him the requested dollar for him and the lead trail guide's services.  I am now hiking the volcano pulling up the rear on an open road in what is promising to be a sweltering day with a half drank bottle of water.  I made it.

Shortly after joining the back of the group on the main road, the lead guy pulls the snake of people through a sliver of a gap in the trees lining the main road.  It doesn't immediately look like a trail but after a few meters of dodging tree trunks and pushing leaves a well worn path emerges on the jungle floor.  

The group walks for about 15 minutes.  I am focusing on not being the last guy in the group.  I prefer to be somewhere in the middle, with some people being within line of sight either in front of behind me.  The police escort is there because some locals have taking to robbing the tourist or worse yet kidnapping.  I already have my preferred set of kidnappers, I don't want to meet a new set or imagine what a turf war between two sets of kidnappers would look like.  

About half of the group is a sub-group that obviously came together as indicated by their matching shirts.  I, determined to move forward, quickly pass the more out of shape of the group.  I am not in peak physical condition and well overweight, but I can see I am not the worst in the group so there are some easy wins.  I catch up to the lead group in a clearing as they are taking a break for the rest to catch up.  I welcome the break even though we are only fifteen minutes in.  My break was shorter than the lead's but I take off when they do and the stragglers are just filtering up.  In the next 15 minutes I am behind a group of five going just a bit slower than my taste and I decide to push on by them.  Proud of my continued progress up the chain of tourist I find I am in the middle with no one in line of site in front of me or behind me.  I pick up my pace to get the next lead in sight and low and behold the five people I passed minutes ago are climbing up an alternative path right in front of me.  Some how my efforts to speed past them just disappeared about the time we come to a clearing with some buildings.  This is the official park entrance, I pay my six dollar fee to enter and protection for the rest of the day.

At the park entrance there is a tall and slim gentleman in a dark and very neatly pressed uniformed leaning against a big rock.   He is just staring into the sun through what look like completely black sunglasses.  His hair is well groomed as if he placed each piece in their perfect respective places first thing this morning.  There is no emotion or motion in the man's face or entire body as far as that goes.  This looks like a man of very little words and he only uses actions to speak his mind.  As the group finishes paying their tolls and moving on up the mountain the police escort remains motionless watching the processional move past him.

As with the first 30 minutes of hiking, the path is well defined and bordered on both sides by thick foliage that raises to a thick jungle canopy.  If there is a breeze it is broken down by the jungle which is providing much appreciated shade.  I have to conserve my water, I only have half a bottle and it is blazing hot and humid.  I am sweating profusely out of every pore.  My hat has absorbed as much as it can and now sweat is stinging my eyes as I relentlessly push up the trail.  

The trail continues to wind around the mountain in a long lazy set of switchbacks of varying grades.  Slowly the thick canopy gives way to shorter but still very large succulent plants like the century agave.  As the canopy disappears the views below open up.  Across a ravine and a small valley a neighboring cloud covered volcano can be seen.  The sun punishes everything below it as we march on.  The trail is getting steeper and the switchbacks more frequent.  After thirty minutes I am no where near the beginning of the group nor the back.  I come to a steep switchback only to find the uniformed officer standing in front of me who is looking right past me across the valley.  Not a drop of sweat on him.  He either doesn't perspire or he has been there a long time.  How did he even get in front of me?  He did not pass me.  I take a minute to enjoy the view and ponder robocops skills and endurance.  He most do this every single day.

I can see a group of people a switchback above me and another on a switchback below me.  In an attempt to maintain my middle position I move on past the calm cool collected police man.  He stands unflinching.    

At this point the tree cover is gone and I unlace the long sleeve dark green shirt from around my waist and put it on.  It is sweltering hot, but the last thing I need is a second degree burn.  Within minutes the shirt is soaked through and through with sweat. Everything I have on is now drenched with a little bit of liquid me.

During the next thirty minutes, I drink my remaining water and continue to pack an empty bottle up the hill.  All the vegetation is now gone and the path is nothing but loose volcanic gravel.  The only person who passes me is half mountain goat, half man.  He bounds past me faster than I would approach a 5k race.  On his back is a giant box which he pays no attention to as it shakes and rattles behind him.  I have no idea what the box was about, and I cannot make out any distinguishing markings with my sweat blinded eyes due to the pace at which he passes and grows small.

My solitary place in the procession starts me to think, what happens if you don't move fast enough?  What happens if the guides are at the top for as long as they stay and I am not at the top.  They turn back and start heading down?  Will they stop me from getting to the top and insist I turn around?  My legs are sore and starting to give way as the dirt is completely gone and rocks have turned into nothing but volcanic rocks, gravel and sand.  The trail is more treacherous now than ever with footing giving way to little avalanches of pebbles and rocks.  The trail is now marked by yellow blazes and peoples carved initials in the few remaining plants.  At every turn I am convinced I must be almost to the top.  I even convince myself I can smell the sulfur.  The hike has surpassed all my preconceived notions based on internet reviews of the hike.  People were talking about carrying their toddlers up this trail.  I am glad my captors opted out as I don't think any of them would have made it.  I reassure myself, I am going to get to the top and going to be their before the pack starts their decent.

I make one last switchback, robocop is waiting, cool and motionless as ever.  Past robocop there is a straight slow rising path of plantless volcano debris up to the rim of the crater.  I can finally see the top after imagining it after every turn for the last 30 minutes.  I can see it.  I can see the stream of people slowly collecting on the caldera.  Oh man I am thirsty. 

Mountain Goat Gruff that passed me earlier is standing at the top to meet everyone.  Beside him is a large red box full of ice cream.  Frozen rock hard ice cream.  The motionless tele transporting police escort is mildly disturbing with his coolness and straight line trickery, but this mountain goat is impressive.  He probably starts the ascent an hour after everyone leaves and arrives to the top 15 minutes before the lead guide and has enough ice cream for everyone and dry ice to keep it ice cold.  As I enjoyed my coconut ice cream I wonder if he makes this run every day. Takes two hours from his regular job holding a gun and opening 7/11 doors to bound up the mountain in 30 minutes, ring a bell and sale ice cream for an hour and bound back down the volcano in 30 minutes.  

The rim of the crater is unprotected and the unfettered gusts of wind are rejuvenating.  Lack of water, replaced by coconut ice cream and a breeze, I take off my long sleeve shirt, perch on the edge of the crater looking down at the steam rising in the 40 degree plus temperatures off the azure well of water and gases hundreds of meters straight down.  Regaining the structure of my legs I wonder around the crater rim to take in the view of the lake and cities below and the other verdant hills, mountains, and volcanoes.  There were clouds, but I read; "If there are clouds, wait and they will blow away in a few minutes."  True to form, after about ten minutes the clouds moved on and the views open up.  In another ten minutes new clouds fill the vacancy.

Thirty minutes have passed, my ice cream is just gone, and my water is long gone, my dark green long sleeve shirt is dry and now white from salt deposits, and energy is slowly leaking back into my body, unfortunately a bit slower than stiffness and aches.  To avoid seizing up, I affirm that it is 'all down hill from here' and fall into the line of ants starting to work their way back to the bottom of the ant hill.  As with the trip up, I queued myself in such a way that I wasn't too close to people in front of me or behind me.  Close enough to keep a line of site on them but not so close to risk a labored conversation with strangers I will never see again.  Early on I know this is the right decision.   

Even though it is all downhill, staying upright takes considerable attention. The trek down is harder in many ways.  Sure my quads are not burning and I have not lost my breath, but shimming down the loose volcanic gravel around sharp switchbacks on rubber legs is a balancing act.  As I search for the blazes along the trail I am wondering are those pre-planned blazes or little memorials to those that didn't make the journey.  The names etched into the succulents are organic tombstones that grow with time reminding present hikers of past mishaps.  I am sure that is what they are and happen to provide a fairly clear path up and down the mountain.  I see one person slip, land on their bum, slide a bit and bounce back up barely breaking the groups fast downward pace.  Man my knees are killing me with each downward tromp taking me back into the canopy.  

Just as I am back under the sun protective leaves towering over the path I hear light footsteps closing in fast.  I take the opportunity to rest and move to the side just in time for Mountain Goat Gruff to bound down past me and disappear into the jungle.  I am not sure he can walk, I have only seen him in two gears: standing and running.

I am back at the clearing that is also the park entrance.  They are selling bottled water now, I greedily buy three and slam two down.  I am too far behind the lead group, they have left into the jungle already, so I am waiting for the trailing group.  I pull out Enrico's phone to make contact with my captors and let them know I am almost out of the jungle.  Well this is a bit surprising and frustrating.  I have no idea how to work this phone.  I mash buttons looking for familiar screens.  I see the call screen but have no idea what number to dial.  Getting to the contacts proved impossible.  Same story with the text screen.  Only if it was in English.  Again my Spanish is not coming along as well as I previously assumed.  In the end, it doesn't really matter I don't have coverage.  Time to leave, I will just march back with the group and hope they are where they dropped me off.  

Nope, O.K. I will just keep marching with the group.  As I near the starting point I see the black, super dark tinted window car idling in the heat as the air conditioner hums relentlessly.  I squeeze into the back seat with the other two using my natural self defense, sweating profusely, to keep the would be space invader at bay while we pull down the hill.

The rental car is acting a bit funny. It becomes clear no one in the car is mechanically inclined but deduce that the car must be over heating.  We pull off next to a road side covering that functions as a restaurant.  The open kitchen is across the road and one guy crosses over to take our orders.  Dax ordered for everyone, so form of meat, I am guessing pork but would never say it out loud with Rob in ear shot.  

He has an aversion to all pork products.  Not out of religion, just happened to been shown how bad pork is for the human body even down to a physiological level.  "That meat gets in your DNA man, google it, you will never eat pork again."  I haven't, I am afraid I would miss bacon.  

Under the covering was an out-of-place modern internet connected juke box.  Not only did it play music, and music videos, one could order up short porn movies while you ate.  I am taking great pleasure eating my meal, drinking my beer, enjoying the view of the massive lake, and watching the 21, maybe 16, year old crane his neck throughout the whole meal to drink in the censured pornography advertisements.  

We fed ourselves, and poured water down the cars gullet and are on the road again.  Rob needs to go to Metapán, an hour north of the Villa, to drop off Enrico.  Apparently his girlfriend is upset that he hasn't been home for the last two nights.  The ride seemed impossibly long in my lethargic state.  My sweaty natural self-defense has gone away so now to avoid being arm in arm, leg to leg with some little kid I had to make myself as small as possible grasping constantly on the ape hanger attached to the door.  

Once we got to Metapán, Rob had another errand to run.  We met up with John, Rob's book aficionado friend from his previous month long visit to get some books.  John left for a few minutes and returned with a lot of books oddly wrapped in a big black trash bag.  After a few pleasantries we barged into Enrico's apartment where his girlfriend was not particularly happy to see us, especially Enrico, which I find odd since she is mad because he wasn't around.  Now that he is around, shouldn't she be happy?  Enrico doesn't need to be there for her to be mad.  Man logic, I am sure of it.

After some debate, Enrico decided to come with us to the Metapán town square.  This is the second city in as many weeks that I saw the town square Christmas lighting event.  It is hard to remember it is Christmas time, when everything around screams endless summer. Unlike Antigua, this lighting was very colorful which makes sense given every building in the town square is white (hence the moniker "the white city"):  White lights against white buildings would probably be less interesting.  While eating looking over the city, Maria texts Rob asking if I was alive.  Despite reassurances that their hostage was healthy, while stiff and tired, Maria didn't believe Rob.  She demanded a proof of life picture - I am not even making this up.  

Wrapping up the evening in Metapán, Enrico decides to stay the night at his apartment and we pick up some other adolescent that needs a ride back to Santa Ana.  I really don't understand why there are so many children flying around this group.  At all times the number of children rival the total adults. 

After another hour of making myself as small as possible in the center seat between two kids, I am ready for sleep…, after a couple of beers and cigarettes to wind down of course.

Now I have ascended the volcano and looked down into the blue-green waters the the crater,  I am ready to move on and start thinking through my options out loud.  Rob did not like my plans.  I should stay around longer he urges and Dax seconds.  

"Where do you have to be?" he asks, to which I don't have a real answer other than 
"No where."  
"Then it is settled you are staying for the month." 
"No, I do want to see other things before going back to the States.  I want to make it to Costa Rica."  
"We can go to the beach tomorrow.  Pick up Anthony and go to the beach."
With promises of beach time, I review the calendar and decide I can stay for another day or two.  "Enrico, is my room free for two more nights?"
Again Enrico screws his eyes upwards for a second or two, and confirms "Yeah, sure."

It is settled I can be bought out with the promise of a beach. I am here for a couple of more nights.