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Sorpresas and Surprises in San Salvador

When you break open an egg you don’t expect to see a sex scene. But then, that’s why you go to El Salvador…

I’ve been trawling San Salvador’s markets for hours now, searching for a sorpresa, or at least some one who has heard of one. Sorpresa means ‘surprise’ in English and this should all be pretty simple, except that my Spanish is terrible and every time I roll an ‘R’ it sounds like a motorboat starting, or perhaps an enraged cat. It’s no wonder that hordes of store holding El Salvadorians are laughing at me.

And while I’ve seen plenty of jeans, loads of dead chickens, and Latin America’s answer to Monopoly (Bankopoly), I’ve yet to come across anyone who is willing to declare himself a merchant of the sorpresa.

The sorpresa is a small ceramic egg, cut in half to reveal an intimate molding of a typical traditional scene. I’ve heard that many of them are based on a simple market diorama. I’ve also heard that if you ask the right person, you might be able to come across a sorpresa containing a simulated sex scene. At the moment I have nothing.

I should mention that to aid my super-craft quest, I’ve dragged my long-suffering girlfriend through the entire inner sanctum of San Salvador’s market district, despite her aversion to rotting fish and soccer jerseys. And it’s thanks to her slightly improved rendition of Spanish that we’re able to grab ourselves a lead, presented in the form of a Marlboro smoking taxi driver, who promises that he can get us near sorpresas for a minimum, non negotiable fee of $12.00. When I try to negotiate, he explains that the sorpresa craftsmen live in a small town, 30 kilometres outside San Salvador. It’s beyond our daily budget and therefore beyond our grasp. We um and ah our disappointment and begin to walk away.

Suddenly, the taxi driver strikes inspiration.

‘Mercado Artisan!’ he shouts, waving his leathery hands.

It turns out there’s a craft market three blocks over, on the other side of the church. Ten minutes later, we arrive at a large tin shed, where we’re greeted enthusiastically by women of all ages. Sorpresas abound. We grab an ice cream and wander down an aisle, taking every possible opportunity to practice our butchered Spanish. There are about fifteen rows of stalls, tightly packed and bursting with every imaginable colour – red in particular.

The women are keen for us to buy their wares and it’s hard to resist, when most are intricately woven and colored. Even the T-shirts slogans are cool: ‘I survived El Salvador?’ Ten years ago, this may have been a real achievement, given the civil war and the scenes of brutality this country saw. Nowadays, it’s no surprise to see the odd traveller mingling in the market chaos and I doubt that El Salvador will hold onto its ‘least visited country in Central America’ tag for too long.

A lovely woman corners us; she wants me to buy a bag. Her stall is a randomly assembled collection of crafts, clothes and knick-knacks.

Es posible un sorpresa?’ I ask.

‘Si, si! Te gustaria typico, o especial?’

‘Typico, por favor.’

Ask for an sorpresa especial and you have the sex scene. The women are selling the especial particularly hard. I only have to ask and I’ll have a handful of tangled limbs waved in my face. Eventually my sense of resistance for trashy souvenirs wears down and I indulge. Twenty minutes later, we’re officially in on the racket. I’ve got an armful of sorpresas and a flag, traded for my hard earned US dollars.

A wrong turn leads us away from the exit and towards the heart of the ‘fashion district.’ The competition for sellers is very fierce here. If I slow down for a few seconds to admire a shirt, I’ll find myself with a suit on my back and a little kid measuring my feet for shoes. Again, it’s hard to say no.

Two aisles over, a priest is giving a sermon from a table shrine filled with porcelain statues and lit candles. The priest is speaking with the passion of some one inspired, and the women have formed in a circle around him. My Spanish doesn’t permit me to understand the sermon but I get the general drift.

We leave the markets and stumble through a collection of parked scooters to the roadside. The sweltering afternoon has mellowed into dusk, leaving long shadows and a cool breeze. We’re keen on a bus home but in the meantime, I need to eat. If we can dodge the traffic, there’s a roadside eatery on the other side of the road. It consists of a plank of wood, a hot plate and roof.

There’s no menu but after enduring derision over my attempts to ask for a plate of ‘deli comida,’ we end up lucking in on the cheapest plate of beans, rice and stew so far on the trip. We finish the Styrofoam plate off while sitting in the gutter and fending off inquiries from fervent street dogs. It’s classy stuff, but really, what more could I want?

Things are heating up on the streets. Stalls, which seemed like permanent pieces of architecture an hour ago, are now disappearing. Groups of tattooed man struggle to load bundles of onions and gardening gloves onto bicycles, while shoppers continue to buy from them. Grown men thread their way throughout the mess, shooting kids with water pistols. At one particularly tight intersection a truck of unidentifiable origin has become stuck. The driver and several stallholders are sharing a cigarette, while our street dog friends urinate against the wheels.

I’d like to sit here and watch people all night.

But another mission beckons. We need to catch one of the one thousand buses screaming past us and get our bundle of sorpresas to safety.

Joss Berrett

Joss Berrett is a lazy writer and traveller who is still scared of flying.