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Travel Tales




Travel Tale - No. 5 - Vol. 2 -  El Salvador - My Jittery Journey

   My madcap visit to El Salvador, to escape suburban boredom, began when I met "Iguana" at a costume party in Houston. The daredevil friend of the editor of Soldier of Fortune Magazine, needed a Spanish translator for some business transactions. He introduced himself as "Iguana," but failed to detail the exact nature of such business.  I was dressed up as a geisha, replete with a black wig, and he was a believable pirate.  When he told me he needed a Spanish interpreter to fly to the Republic of  El Salvador, I volunteered. After all, it was two o'clock in the morning and we had met at the punch bowl.  He was drinking straight Scotch and I was serving the punch.  A lot of it got splattered and I was simply licking it off all the strawberries.   
     At the time, my husband was enmeshed in serious contract negotiations with his union, and I wanted a break from the bedlam in our house of pilots' meetings at all hours of the night.   Also, there was a federal grand jury subpoena with my name on it as the leader of the Pilots Wives' Association, because of my lobbying for their cause in Washington, so I decided to head south for a while.  Little did I know, that I was flying in to stormier weather!  Being a freelance journalist, I volunteered my Argentinean grammar in exchange for an all-expense paid vacation, and one hell of an adventure; a story which I later published in an Arizona newspaper. 
    The smallest country in South America borders the North Pacific Ocean, between Guatemala and Honduras, and is about the size of New Jersey.  The Salvadoran Army, traditionally allied itself with the oligarchy.  In their struggle against the leftists, human rights groups estimate that about 75,000 people died in their 12 year civil war.  Before the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in 1524, the Mayans called the area "Cuscatlan" which means land of precious things. The country offers visitors a panorama of many contrasts: miles of unspoiled Pacific beaches, mountains full of pine trees, pre-Colombian ruins, azure lakes, lush tropical countryside, good highways, sunny weather with low humidity in the highlands, with an average of 72 degrees, and many volcanoes.  In Chalchuapa, about 50 miles from San Salvador, you can find the pyramid of Tazumal, and remnants of a civilization dating back 1,500 years.  At the national museum in the capital, you will find a vast collection of pre-Colombian artifacts.  You can experience the blending of Indian and Spanish cultures at the village of Panchimalco with its church dating back 400 years. The language of the Amerindians is Nahua.
    We flew from Miami International to Belize, where we spent 20 minutes disembarking passengers. The camouflaged anti-aircraft guns covered by jute tentacles of net were silent indications of a no-nonsense military approach to safeguarding the runway, a reminder that we would soon be landing in a country involved in a war with Marxist guerillas.    
    Upon arriving at San Salvador's International Airport, we were given a warm welcome courtesy of Colonel Bustillo, who had sent a pilot for us hobbling on crutches with his left leg in a cast up to his knee.  When I asked him how he broke his leg, he told me, "jumping out of an airplane on fire." After Iguana exchanged gifts and pleasantries,  a soldier asked me for my passport and camera, informing me they would be kept in a safe place until I left El Salvador. I was also issued a bodyguard who only reached my shoulders and looked like he was fourteen, but he was carrying a rifle and stuck to me like chewing gum to a shoe. Several other soldiers carrying M-16s escorted us to a waiting French Raleigh that had been flown in by the one-footed pilot.  I knew my husband would never approve of my flying in an airplane with a pilot with his leg in a cast, but I was held incommunicado for the entire escapade and he would have to wait until my return to Texas to hear my unbelievable story.  
    The following morning, I had the inordinate opportunity of meeting Lt. Col. Jorge Adalberto Cruz, commanding officer of the Morazan Department at the Ilopango Air Force Base and local hero.  He spoke perfect English, polished from attending Texas A & M.  A group of the latest Huey helicopters sat guarding the then Vice-president Bush's presidential helicopter.  Later that afternoon, there was a party on base to which I was invited (without my camera, so I had someone take pictures.)  "Those four million dollar beauties are what we want," said a Salvadoran pilot rather despondently. Also, if we could have some of your latest technology such as the shoulder missiles, and laser..."  I interrupted him.  "Don't ask me.  I know nothing about such matters.  In fact, I don't even know what I am doing here."  A sudden thought crossed my mind, if we didn't stop the Marxist guerillas there in Central America, we would be stopping them on the Rio Grande.
   Suddenly my services were pressed into interpretive action, and I was busy translating words about ammunition, guns, helicopters, and all kinds of military terms, that were not even in the Spanish-English dictionary.  A tall, handsome soldier in an American Marine uniform standing beside me, was listening attentively with a grave look on his face.  I thought it was a bit rude that he had not been introduced to me, but I quickly learned that names were scarce. "Iguana" and other code names were thrown about like darts in an English pub.  I thought the good-looking man would be better off as a movie star in Hollywood playing a soldier, than a real one, here in the middle of the jungle.  
         A couple of years later, I recognized him on TV refusing to testify against President Reagan in the Iran Contra Affair!  It was Ollie North!  Then I understood the reason my camera had been confiscated.  None of us had actually been there.  Only these photos prove that I was really in El Salvador with Ollie North, and not having a secret affair with a Latin lover as my husband suspected.
        At one of the meetings held with a leading businessman at the country club, I learned how his land had been confiscated from him in the name of the agrarian reform.  "Unfortunately, this is not the answer to our economic problems," he stated in English, having graduated from an American Ivy League university." When I owned the land, not only did I drain it, cultivate it properly, but it served as an economic base to house and feed many peasant families. Now it is simply going to waste with nobody taking care of it."  He explained with a .45 caliber resting on our white linen tablecloth.  "My bodyguard was gun downed and he is now a paraplegic," he apologized to me for the gun on our dinner table. Iguana's gun was stuck in his pocket. My bodyguard was sitting next to me as an uninvited guest to a formal dinner party with his rifle by the chair. I looked around the room at the well-dressed women with their hair pinned up neatly, and I felt like I was in a surrealistic Fellini movie set.   
    While flying over guerilla territory, our small plane developed an oil leak and the pilot had to feather both props. I was more frightened of being captured by the guerillas and pressed into housekeeping service, than of crashing in the mountains.  The personnel of Soldier of Fortune, a right-wing publication had a price on their heads, and I was with them!  Luckily, we glided on an updraft, then managed to land on a dirt strip.  Two soldiers with guns came running towards our broken plane.  I froze a smile on my face, pointing to my tee-shirt: "No disparen - soy periodista."  (Don't shoot - I'm a newswoman.)  They did not smile back, but hooked their rifles over their shoulders and said: "bienvenidos a Costa Rica.  Llevan drogas?"  (Welcome to Costa Rica.  Are you carrying drugs."  I was ready to faint.



  Six hours later, as we waited in the sweltering heat of a wooden hut, another plane was flown in to remove us from Costa Rica, where we had not business being, and as you can see by the smile on my face, I was happy to be returning to Texas.   As I approached Immigration wearing a tee-shirt stating: “No dispare, soy periodista,” the agent mispronounced it asking, “What does it mean?” I answered: ‘Don’t shoot, I’m a newspaper woman.’ You wouldn’t believe me anyway.  I just hope my husband does!”
Alinka Zyrmont

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