GUEST WRITER GREG HAMMERDOWN survives a 24-hour hard rock road trip in Central America

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Warcry: Luz del Norte
GUEST WRITER GREG HAMMERDOWN survives a 24-hour hard rock road trip in Central America

We’re two hours into what turns out to be a 24 hour road-trip, and already I’ve had beer, white rum, lemonade, orange juice and ice, either spilt or splashed over me, as refreshments get passed overhead to the five Metallers who have taken up occupancy of the rear seat.

The bus loudly changes gear, momentarily drowning out the distorted sound of Slayer’s Reign In Blood album that is blasting out of ancient speakers, as we slowly lurch our way out of Guatemala City in peak hour traffic on our way south to El Salvador.

So when someone in the seat in front, amid cheers and backslapping, mistimes his vomit out the window and throws up in the aisle instead, splashing my shoes, I’m already beyond caring about such small inconveniences.

A few days earlier, I had been wandering the streets of Guatemala City, where I had photographed a street poster advertising a gig for the evening of the 23rd May 2012, the day before I was to leave and head back to the USA, but as to where the gig actually was, I was having trouble ascertaining until my hotel receptionist, Julio, translated for me.

IMG_0556The poster, in fact, advertised a bus trip to San Salvador, the capital of The Republic Of El Salvador, to see a concert by Spanish heavy metal band, WARCRY.

Not being the biggest Metal fan, but up for an adventure, I ask Julio to phone the organizer and book my place aboard this magical mystery tour.

So here we were, all 17 of us, wedged into a decrepit ex-American school bus, that would have comfortably seated maybe fourteen, leaving Parque Del Centanario in central Guatemala City at 7.30 am one fine Wednesday morning.

The bus was the short version of a typical yellow American school bus, known imaginatively as a ‘short bus’, and traditionally reserved for, what one American tourist informed me, were ‘the window-lickers’, i.e. the slow students that would or could be vulnerable riding in the longer version with the ‘normal’ students. Although how the attached stigma of riding in the short bus was negated, and not enhanced by this segregation was questionable.

As we head south out of the city, picking up several more passengers, and somehow finding room for them, our tour organiser, Deigo (curiously wearing a ‘Pink Floyd’ T-shirt), reaches into his bag and, much to the collective delight of all aboard, holds up two 1.5 litre bottles of white rum.

As drinks are poured and distributed (with about five cameras constantly recording every fresh round and associated toast), I’m thinking that 8.00 am, and half an hour into a 24 hour trip is a little early to be drinking spirits. And that either these Guatemalan dudes must be great drinkers, or this is gonna turn into some fun pretty quickly.

The latter of course, proved to be the better guess.

IMG_0701_1Conveniently, our bus breaks down for the first time (out of four times in the first 100 km) on a freeway overbridge, leading to the comical sight of 10 guys pissing through the railing onto the crawling peak hour traffic below.

One, Manolo ( representing ‘Sam Hain’ on his T-shirt), was even pissing and nonchalantly throwing up at the same time! Horns are sounded and fists are raised upwards, while, with their dicks in one hand, the other hand gave the unfortunate drivers below a one-finger salute – all this while surrounded by pedestrians, and cars trying to manoeuvre around our stalled bus.

As my Spanish is limited, and my companions grasp of English is equally so, our communications are limited to crude hand signing, smiles, frowns and lyrics out of AC/DC songs, most memorably, when Manuel (Iron Maiden T-shirt), a slightly cross-eyed dude of around 25 (who became increasingly more unfocused as the trip wore on and the alcohol took effect) would stand, and with Goats raised (the international metal hand signal formed by extending the little and index finger, with the thumb holding the two middle fingers curled against the palm), would start up a chant of “For those about to ROCK! We salute YOU!”

Either that, or “Rock ‘n’ Roll AIN’T noise pollution! Rock ‘n’ Roll will never DIE!”

We’ve got plenty of time and the breakdowns are of little concern to anyone including, seemingly, the driver and his ‘mechanic’ off-sider, but it does allow us time to sample a variety of snacks, sweets and beers from various roadside stalls, and for two small groups (Black Sabbath/Anthrax Vs Morbid Angel/Dimmu Borgir) to occupy themselves for several hours engaging in the age-old debate as to the greatest metal vocalist of all-time, John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne or Ronnie James Dio.

IMG_0699Meanwhile, the sun is shining and it’s an all-together pleasant drive south.

It’s around 1pm as we approach the border; however, just before we reach it, the bus pulls over and three of our posse (representing Metallica, Slayer and Kreator respectively) disappear into the undergrowth beside the road, while another (Motorhead), slips under the bus seats pulling his black leather jacket over his head.

The border crossing is a single-span, single lane concrete bridge of approx. 40 metres in height over a small river, surrounded by bush, and guarded at both ends by uniformed guards toting shotguns and semi-automatic weapons.

I’m wondering what The Three Amigos, our deserters, have planned.

At this stage, my travel companions were more concerned as to whether I would make it through customs, than the other four who were obviously without proper documentation, so they started up a chant of “NOO-VOO-ZEE-LAND-DE-ARRRGHH!!” a chant they had been drunkenly regaling me with on the bus already, feeling somehow, that loudly informing the immigration officials of my nationality would bestow a privilege upon me and secure me safe passage forward.

All it achieved was to stir the attention of the armed guards, who started to shift and eye me up.

Meanwhile, I was concerned about the efforts of our motley crew to remain upright long enough to get their papers approved.

Somehow, we made it through and were allowed to get back on the bus, at which point an official starting looking through our bus windows, and seeing Pedro (Motorhead) stretched out under the seats, leather jacket still in place, simply shook his head and walked away.

Several hundred metres up the road on the El Salvador side, and in full view of the border crossing, the bus pulled over again and we picked up our three metal brothers, and amid much laughter and toasting (and more photos), we were on our way once more.

How they managed to cross the river and remain dry, I’m unsure, but they had performed the deception numerous times before I was informed.

Our final run into San Salvador was largely uneventful and we arrive just after 4 pm, having taken nine and a half hours to travel what would normally be a five-six hour trip.

We kill the time outside the venue eating burritos and BBQ chicken at the makeshift stalls that have been set up to take advantage of the influx of visitors for tonight’s gig, and washing it all down with local beers at $US1 a can. (El Salvador, Central America’s smallest and, with just over 6 million, most densely populated country has no currency of it’s own; the Salvadoran ‘Colon’ having been withdrawn in 2001, allowing exclusive use of American dollars).

At long last, gig time rolls around and long queues form at the one, heavily guarded, entrance. After thorough body and bag searches are carried out, we make our way to the venue itself, an old gymnasium with concrete floor and nothing in the way of acoustic dampening, so I’m dreading what this is all going to sound like.

The support band finally make an appearance, and to my great surprise the sound is great. However the band, called Gaia World – a Trippy/World/Hard Rock outfit – are entirely forgettable. While they are playing, I notice several groups of people at the rear of the venue crowding around small hand-held screens that are broadcasting live a national football match.\

It is only when I get a closer look at who is playing that I realise El Salvador are playing New Zealand in a ‘friendly’ being played in the United States. I laugh to myself, that the only time I’m probably ever going to be in El Salvador (and that for only 12 hours at most), our countries are playing against each other in their national sport.

I point out to the group that I am from New Zealand, and are welcomed into their gathering with much warmth and laughter. The final score of 2-2 meant the atmosphere remained that way.

Finally it’s time for the main act WARCRY, our Spanish heavy metal heroes to take the stage. The crowd of around 2,500 are well versed in their back-catalogue and are immediately singing and chanting the choruses, and despite our bare surroundings, the sound is crisp and clear, belying the ‘Louder Is Better’ refrain of most metal gigs.

The band have been around in one form or another since forming in 2001, when lead singer/songwriter (and sole remaining founding member) Victor Garcia, and drummer Alberto Ardines were ejected from fellow Asturian band, Avalanch.

About an hour into their set, of what I would call Progressive or Power Metal, I see our tour organiser, Diego, who has been lying comatose in a foetal position on the cold dusty floor since we first got into the venue, finally rouse himself, and with renewed energy, go leaping and shouting into the mosh pit, determined to make up for lost time.

After several well-received encores, we make our way back to the bus only to find Deigo is unaccounted for. Eventually, we see him weaving his way across the carpark towards us, but when he is 50 metres away, he is confronted by a man and a short argument ensues (maybe it’s the ‘Pink Floyd’ T-shirt?), and before anyone in the bus can react, he takes Deigo by the shirt and smashes him in the face three or four times, knocking him to the ground, and throwing in a fair number of solid kicks to the body for good measure.

The crowd slowly moves in to hold the dude back, and Deigo is helped to his feet, still too drunk I think, to feel or realise exactly what just went down. I just know that when he finally does make it to bed, he’s gonna wake up sore.

IMG_0703Our return trip to the border goes smoothly with no breakdowns and only the occasional piss-stop required as most of our posse are snoring and unself-conciously sleeping, latin-styles, with arms entwined around each others shoulders, heads together, and in some cases, with heads on laps.

After crossing the bridge, we are asked to disembark and present our papers in a large office to half a dozen immigration officials behind metal grills, once again, overseen by heavily armed security watching from the corners.   

IMG_0693The same routine is followed as we approach the border crossing.

But this time with all four of our illegal aliens (Metallica, Slayer, Kreator & Motorhead) disembarking before the border to rejoin us on the Guatemalan side with silent smiles and sleepy hi-fives . . . before the final drive into Guatemala City as the dusty morning sun breaks through the clouds.

We arrive back at the same square we departed from 24 hours previously, as the city stretches itself into a new day.

We hug, shake hands and say our goodbyes. In four hours, I’ll be on my flight to Indianapolis for the next stage of my adventure and I’ll probably never see any of these people again.

However, in 24 hours, they have provided me with a lifetime of smiles, and for that, I sincerely thank them.

Greg Hammerdown is a former gig promoter. He can now be seen at the back of gigs complaining about the sound levels and "kids these days".

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Your Comments

Jeremy - Aug 28, 2012

That is one of the great stories. You're a braver man than I.

I also have a connection to Guatemala and music though. Travelling through Central America, iPod on the blink. Andres the Guatemalan Prince lends me his iPod during a long and dodgy bus ride, and I discover he has half my record collection on there. How blissful it was to zone out the nightmare roads and driving by listening to LCD Soundsystem and DJ Shadow. We became firm friends. Music - the universal language even in the back blocks of Guatemala eh.

Alastair Tattersall - Aug 29, 2012

Only Greg H could get away with this sort of crazy shit. Wicked story.

Daz - Dec 2, 2012

Brilliant story Greg.. Legend.

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