Blog: Puente Arce, El Salvador: typical and untypical town
Puente Arce is a border town between El Salvador and Guatemala: in this it is untypical. The main street is always crowded with big trucks coming and going. There are local buses that go to Cara Sucia and onward both south to San Salvador and east to Sonsonate and Santa Ana. There is some traveling auto traffic and there are plenty of local peoples’ Japanese cars and pick-up trucks adding to the congestion, along with pedestrians and a host of uniformed border guards with their camo mufti, belts, and guns in their hands that stand more of less behind the barriers surrounding the border.
The town is laid out on either side of the main highway. With approximately 9000 people here, each section is easily more than a square mile in extent. This family live on the east side and our dirt street is off the main street which is perpendicular to the highway and right at the barriers of the border crossing. Left turn out of the crossing to the street with the hot spot, several comida that open to the street, a couple houses and then left turn again to our alley, up two blocks and this is home.
The other side of the town seemed to be more a traditional Hispanic town as I saw it when we went over there to the funeral. The streets are paved with stones, there is a creek running through to the river, a bridge and tall trees, gardens and a few of the Spanish style homes inside tall cement walls with wide iron gates.
Up the road about 2 miles is Cara Sucia a somewhat larger town which is mainly a market town with ferreteria, farmacia, mercado, franchise chicken places and a host of local restaurants, banks and offices on the second floors of the buildings lining the streets. The whole place is busy with people walking about, with motor taxis coming and going, with the crowded mercado laden with food, clothing of various descriptions, tools, kitchen equipment and just a lot of stuff.
Instead of coming all the way down into the thick of Puente Arce on our way home, we turn right up the paved and curbed road about three blocks short of the border, up a short hill, up and over between rows of homes, tree covered vacant lots, and empty lots which graze goats. Further along on the right is the school, a single story row of windowed buildings with an enclosed soccer yard in front. Always there are bunches of kids hanging around that seem mostly middle and high school age. They wear white shirts, blue skirts or pants while at school and lots of colorful variety after hours.
The other roads on this side are more or less a grid and only a few are paved which really means that once upon a time there was a cement surface now pitted, cracked and treacherous enough to keep us moving at about 4 ½ miles an hour. There is time to watch and observe especially since George does the driving. I cannot say I have any real idea of the layout of the town because there are angled streets, short streets, dirt tracks that end in the bush of a field and even a dead end which we slipped past.
When we come sometimes in the evenings, with the lights on in the houses, I can see through the openings of windows with their decorative iron bars.
Many homes have plastered, pastel painted walls and smooth cement floors which are kept immaculate with the traditional broom and mop applied daily. I see interesting furniture: wardrobes with mirrors, dinner tables and chairs, sofa chairs and just about everywhere hammocks for cool dreaming are strung to stanchions riveted into the walls. All these things are in one large quite gracious room sometimes hung with family photographs in frames. Sometimes there are large fabric partitions hung from wire above sectioning off the sleeping areas or the open closets. Kitchens are basic stove top grills, a bank of cupboards with a cutting surface and other stands for pots and pans, dishes and utensils. The brick ovens are constructed outside on the verandas for cooking outside.
The homes have open windows or bars across spaces as this tropic zone is warm in the dry season, hotter and more humid in the wet season. It is a life quite comfortably lived outside and under the roof.
The homes in the whole area have been built rather like small fortresses with cement walls; cement and brick enclosed courtyards, each separate from the other and often taking up the entire space of the ‘lots’. It is an eclectic mix of creativity as each builder, each family have made their place as they wish it to be. Each neighbor has taken his space next along the streets. In the more outlying areas, there are open lots with grazing animals, some with what look like wells, set in a natural forest of native trees. Some of the courtyards are made into gardens that are charming green enclosures with bougainvillea and hibiscus bushes, the color of geraniums arched over with tropical almond with their wide green leaves for thick shade.
Each person’s home is his castle. Everyone enjoys their privacy and the neighbors never would imagine to ask for less noise, never would make a fuss about a dog, or the speakers booming when the church people sing Saturday all day and Wednesday evening. People sit on their porches, and hang on their hammocks. People walk up and down, visit, speed past on bicycles, generally just having a pleasant time.
Everything is going on in this town. The chickens hunt along all over the dirt for their food. They produce eggs with the most hardy shells I have ever eaten. Goats graze along the tracks, in the lots and Papa takes ours down to the river to drink. Even tall wired fences do not keep them from their leafy morsels. They eat all the vegetable peelings. There is a man with two large white oxen who set them in traces to pull his wagon loaded with 55 pound sacks of grain and bales of hay grown just up the road. I look out the window the van where I am writing to see them lumbering up the alley and turning the corner.
Life is what is happening when we are busy making other plans!
When I have taken myself to the hot spot, I noticed a sweet old lady with a bandage on her wrist. It was pretty obvious she could use some help so I stopped and sat with her to do some acupressure that soon put her to sleep while easing the pain and giving a boost to the healing. One lady who, with daughters, has a comida, broke her leg riding on her motorcycle. It was a good surgery done by doctors trained in Cuba as part of the medical outreach sponsored by that country. I sat smiling with her and did some simple acupressure; the ache in the bones was eased and inner healing promoted. These people are hardy and they are strong. We soon become friends. The old lady there and the white haired dear up our alley sit together. We just hug and smile.
The heart always knows.
There is great charm here and a lot of contentment. Even the young kids who are school age are friendly, kind to their fellows and hearty at the soccer game. Many people have bicycled wheeled carts and cruise the town offering fresh cut fruit, tortillas, and various interesting local cuisine for sale.
Dear friends, there is life here and it is definitely human friendly. The men have a cultural honor inbuilt that causes them to stand well in their shoes. This grandfather here has been with his wife since they were in high school and their family has thrived in their love and tenderness. This is a wholesome culture.
The rumors and the bad news that is heard in the American media is an element that is somewhat separate from the life of the people. The state police have check points along the road that make sure, for instance, that customs and immigration have passed my van. They inspect trucks especially when there is intelligence of large cocaine shipments and the border officials supported by the army are vigilant because the border attracts criminal activity. So the shit does happen but it is in a much larger circle of energy rather more remote than in the close enclaves of this small town or among the local people.
It is not ‘news’ here: it is on the news where you are for another kind of reason.
The people take care of each other. When one of them ‘has’, the whole family has whatever is needed and wanted. When a female person leaves her home, she is accompanied by a family member be it down the block, to the town or wherever it is she wishes to go. They were very concerned that I was traveling alone: where is your family, where is your brother, they wanted to know.
It is in this tradition that George has decided to accompany me on my way to Panama and he may very well come all the way to Ecuador. Our paths have merged while I have been sitting here in the red dirt alley in Puente Arce, El Salvador. I feel blessed and cherished. How wonderful is that?