Do you ever wake up and feel like leaving the country? After rattling around northern Nicaragua for a few weeks, I had an unprecedented bout of early-morning initiative. I decided that instead of a day trip to nearby Somoto Canyon, I would hop an eight-hour bus—crossing the Honduras and El Salvador borders—to reach San Salvador. There, I would turn left and head to the beach.
Now, I don’t have a great track record with decisions made before 7:30 a.m., but I’ve made sort of an art out of poor planning. As I’ve progressed in Spanish through my sessions with TOTALe, I’ve gotten comfortable making last-minute arrangements. It’s allowed me to make some bold decisions that wouldn’t have been possible without the ability to communicate and make up my mind on the fly.
I made this particular decision at seven minutes after seven this morning, to be exact, when I found out there was an eight o’clock bus bound for San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. I ran back to the guesthouse, tossed my things into a pack, and wandered out to find it.
Eight hours later I’m standing under a blanket of San Salvador smog next to a crowded highway as two cops with AK–47s try to flag down a bus that will take me the rest of the way to the beach. So far, they’ve had no luck. Still, as drivers on the 302 bus route (that’s the one I need to catch) rocket past us with a side-to-side finger shake, I’m glad I’ve been able to solicit help from the cops in Spanish. Not only would I not have known which of the hundreds of passing buses to take, but if the police are having this much trouble while wielding loaded rifles, I wonder about my chances standing here alone, totally unarmed.
Finally, I snag a bus to La Libertad on the coast and arrive as the sun is setting. The buses running north from here have stopped for the day, but I manage to convince a local street vendor with a pickup truck to take me up to Playa El Tunco—a tiny surf town to the north—for a small fee. These quick Spanish interactions have become easy and even fun. In El Tunco I meet Sarita, the owner of a little six-room hostel. She shows me to a room shared by other travelers—from Sweden, Peru, France, and Australia—and I settle into the one remaining bed.
At the waterfront, a block away, local performers spin fire in the center of a large drum circle amid a frenzy of dancing onlookers, with the surf crashing behind them. Spotlights flood the shore break where there’s a nighttime surfing competition taking place. It’s been a long day, but I’m glad the quiet evening streets of Estelí are behind me now that I have a cerveza in hand and the sea air in my chest.
Without a guidebook for El Salvador, I’m relying exclusively on word of mouth to explore here. On Sarita’s advice, the following day I head back into La Libertad to walk the commercial fishing pier, a frenetic environment loaded with fishmongers plying their trade. The strip flanking the pier is occupied by fishermen tying dragnets and salted fish drying in the sun.
There’s a drastic contrast between the rustic fish market and the garishly manicured malecón, the tourist boardwalk nearby. A walk further along the coast reveals a rocky shore presided over by the ruins of formerly grand hotels and a cemetery with an ocean view, packed with plastic flowers and tombs painted in Caribbean pastels.
Exploring here I feel the familiar surge of excitement that accompanies the unknown. This is why I travel. Surrounded with such new sights, even those daily activities that are so mundane to the locals, I feel alive with the newness of it all and the sheer contrast with my own everyday life.
Being able to move through this world that’s so alien to me, and even to take part in it, is a thrill I’ve become addicted to. These adventures would be frustrating or impossible if I couldn’t speak the local language. Traveling in crowded buses and navigating in a foreign tongue, waking up in one country not knowing whether I’ll fall asleep in another—this is my idea of freedom.