December 28, 2006

(El Salvador)...This Central American country does not have the range of natural wonders as does Costa Rica, but as the southernmost extremity of the Mayan world, there are several archaeological sites of interest. The most important, Joya de Ceren, was a pre-Hispanic village that like its more famous sisters, Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy, was buried under volcanic ash. The disaster has been dated to around 600 A.D.; soon after its re-discovery in 1985, Joya de Ceren became a UNESCO site. Many artifacts still are on display, a sauna was uncovered and more than one perfectly preserved skeleton was unearthed. The site was interesting but overall left me cold, and what interest I did have was eroded by the very nice tour guide feeling she had to explain every single artifact and faded poster, and in depth. I sneaked away from her several times to ostensibly look at the Blue-crowned motmots that were flying around and perching on the wires surrounding the artifacts. 
I was more excited to go to Santa Ana, which since I first read of it in a travel book by Paul Theroux, seemed to me one of the places I should one day visit. Its cathedral dominates the town, but the town in turn is dominated by the 2,365-metre Volcán de Santa Ana (the country's highest), my best view of which was from the banks of the country’s largest lake, the Lago de Coatepeque. Back in Santa Ana, I gravitated towards the city's wonderful theatre, which was being repaired. Its creaky floors, heavy door and wooden paneling evoke the ghosts of turn-of-the-century playwrights and actors. It was opened on February 27, 1910.
The city also is home to a spectacular coffee called Aida's Grand Reserve Peaberry, although I highly suspect that this is the name written only on bags intended for export. How much is exported at $25 per 340 grammes, I do not know. It is available in the United States (I just did a search) now, and, equally wonderful, it is produced at a Santa Ana farm called Finca Mauretania, which gave me an excuse to dream about travelling to that West African nation, even though the spelling is slightly different. We drove by the farm — at the time I did not know of its coffee — and I remember being happy at seeing the word Muaretania in El Salvador. Perhaps "Mauretania" does mean "Land of the Moors, a throwback to Arabic influence in Spain, El Salvador's former motherland. Aida has nothing to do with the chain of coffee shops of the same name in Austria, by the way; also, by the way, Aida is finca owner Aida Batlle, a surname also shared by a recent but ex-president of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle Ibáñez, which is the only reason I know how to pronounce it. Actually, four Uruguayn president have been Batlles. That's a lot of Batlles in such a small country. The photo above was taken as I drove back from Santa Ana towards the capital, San Salvador. 
The nearby town of San Juan Opico is noisy and covered with political graffiti, and from its small square several other volcanoes can be seen. One thing El Salvador does not lack for is volcanoes, the last serious eruption being on January 13, 2001; also in October that year, the coasts were battered by Hurricane Iris (three years after Hurricane Mitch), so the people slowly are being haunted from all directions, not least from the scars of the country’s civil war 10 years or so ago. I so hope that the country develops its tourism, but of all the countries in the region it seems to me that this one will have the hardest time achieving it. El Salvador, like Nicaragua, has a rule on its books deeming it illegal to cover over political graffiti that was produced during its years of struggle and civil war. This seems to be especially enlightened, the authorities quite rightly believing that these "documents" are a part of their cultural history and just as relevant and important, and therefore worth saving, as any piece of art or the insides of a church. 
When I arrived back in the capital San Salvador, I went for a walk. I was in the tourism district, where the hotels are, but after 30 minutes or so I found, 800 metres along a tall, white wall, what was literally a hole in the wall. I entered and found myself in an unpaved barrio of narrow alleys, patched-together cars and the inevitable parade of skinny dogs, colourful roosters and smiling children. A huge USA flag was painted on one car, which was parked outside a Seventh Day Adventist church. The priest invited me into the service, which basically was comprised solely of him singing hymns into a microphone. Everyone seemed very happy.
I looked for another way out of the community, but if there was a second door, or perhaps even a road, I did not find it. I did find myself later on walking up a dead-end path that led to a bottom of a cliff, a few ramshackle houses and a half-destroyed gazebo where a little boy kicked a football and shouted out what sounded like "Beckham, Beckham," after the English player David Beckham. In order to get back to my hotel, I had to walk all the way down a hill until the cliff disappeared, but in that way I did find a really cute café with Santa Ana coffee, although I am pretty sure it was not from Finca Mauretania.

December 08, 2006

(Hungary)...From page 508 of the 1973 Penguin edition of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War (in Czech: Osudy Dobrého Vojáka Švejka za svě Tové Války), translated by Cecil Parrott, come the lines... 

"…At the same time he got the order that out of these six crowns every man should deposit in the office here two crowns for the war loan….According to reliable information your brigadier has got paralysis.” “Sir,” said Captain Ságner, turning to the station commander, “according to regimental orders and our schedule we’re going to Gödöllö. The men have to get fifteen dekas of Emmentaler cheese here. At the last station they should have got fifteen dekas of Hungarian salami, but they didn’t get anything.” “I’m afraid they’ll get nothing here either,” the major replied, continuing to smile pleasantly. “I know nothing about any order of the kind for the regiments from Bohemia. Anyhow, that’s not my affair. Apply to supply command.” “When are we leaving, sir?” “There’s a train in front of you with heavy artillery bound for Galicia. We shall send it off in an hour, captain. On the third track there’s a hospital train. It’s leaving twenty-five minutes after the artillery. On the twelfth track we’ve a munitions train. That’s leaving ten minutes after the hospital train. Twenty minutes after that your train will be going.” “That’s to say, if there are no changes,” he added, continuing to smile so that Captain Ságner found him utterly revolting. “Excuse me, sir,” asked Ságner, “will you be so good as to explain to me how it comes about that you know nothing of any order of the kind for the issue of fifteen dekas of Emmentaler cheese for the regiments from Bohemia?” “That’s secret,” the station commander at Budapest replied, continuing to smile." 

I have just finished reading this wonderful anti-war book about the trials and tribulations — and above all good nature — of the soldier Josef Švejk. I, like him, albeit in more pleasant circumstances, walked through the Hungarian village of Gödöllö, 35 kilometres or so east of Hungary’s capital, Budapest.
Its main sight is the Lázár Lovaspark (, an equestrian and horse-breeding stable and lands for champion teams of show horses. I have a postcard of it on my work desk, a team of eight horses in three rows — two, three and three, respectively, away from the rider — bridled together and ridden by a man, dressed in a black hat and flowing blue garments, standing with one foot perched on each of the backs of the first two horses. From what is written on the front of the postcard it seems the park is actually in a smaller place near Gödöllö called Domonyvölgy, which gives me an excuse to write on line that wonderful name.
I went there one sunny morning in a May. The owner, Vilmos Lázár, was there. He won a World Championship gold medal in 1989, so the literature available told me, as a member of a Hungarian team that included, apparently, Mihály Fehér and Gábor Szegedi. He also came in third in the pair-driving World Championship held in the Hungarian town of Balatonfenyves, which I also visited to sample some wine. Undulating green fields contained strange-looking oxen with huge curving horns, and several thoroughbred horses charged around. A horse and cart delivered hay and was driven by two young men. I was brought a very good cup of coffee in a darkly paneled room covered in prizes, rosettes and photographs of past riders and horses. Nearby is the Grassalkovich Palace, also called the Gödöllõ Royal Palace, which seemed half way through some renovations. It is ornate, with touches of pink paint, a cupola and a large arch leading to a beautiful brick path and neat gardens.
At the back were two buildings yet to be restored that still showed vandalism — bullet holes, knife marks, general decay — left by Russian troops who were stationed here in the 1950s and 60s (see photograph above). Also on site was an exhibition on the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Queen Elizabeth, better known as Sisi or Sissi, depending on one’s preferred spelling. Everywhere I have been in this region seems to have an exhibition on her, although this palace was more than entitled to one, considering she and her husband, Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria, spent their summers here. The guides even now haltingly admit that she suffered from what we now call either anorexia or bulimia. I am sure there is a difference between these two conditions, but I do not know what it is, and I cannot now remember which one they said she suffered from.
In addition, quite elatedly I discovered that Gödöllö was the site for the fourth World Scout Jamboree, held in 1933. The official badge of the event, with a gold border on a brown background, is of a jumping white stag. Lord Baden-Powell was welcomed to the event by Count Teleki, the Scout Movement’s Hungarian ambassador, and Admiral Horthy, Hungary’s Prince Regent. (Twelve years later all signs of aristocracy would have disappeared in Hungary.) Almost 30,000 scouts attended the jamboree, including six from Siam and 23 from Syria. One post soon I will tell of my interest in early English scouting movements, especially the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift set up by the Scout Movement’s original force John Hargrave.