August brings about the celebration known as Fiestas Agostinas in El Salvador's capital, and a feeling of wistfulness for those who live abroad but have ties to the country. Fiestas Agostinas celebrates the city's patron saint, Salvador del Mundo (Savior of the World), and if you want to have fun in this small Central American nation, it's the time of year to find it around every corner.
The holiday means a week-long vacation for most people in San Salvador, with even the government closing down. Many families trek to the coast to enjoy the beach, while those who remain in the city or come down from the mountains into it, find other entertainment.
Two years ago my children and I experienced our first Fiestas Agostinas; my husband Carlos, a native Salvadoran, relived childhood memories and made new ones along with us.
The sights, scents and sounds of food stalls line the streets; vendors sell elotes locos, corn cobs served on a stick, covered in various condiments including ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and cheese. Thin, crunchy, fried plantain strips called tostadas de plátano make a tempting display in large metal tubs. Walking past the stalls, one has to take care to watch their step. Hot oil sizzles as dough is piped into it in large spirals; with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon, the churros are ready for patrons desiring a sweet treat.
As the sun goes down, the colorful lights of the carnival rides come on—carousels, ferris wheels, roller coasters of various sizes and themes, some powered by electricity and others moved by manpower alone. These carnivals can be found in various parts of San Salvador. A popular and affordable one sets up in the area called Don Rúa, while the biggest and costlier one is held at Consuma.
This year we won't be able to make it to El Salvador to celebrate Fiestas Agostinas, but the memories are fresh in our minds. One story we still retell and laugh about is that of the fortune-telling bird.
A young man at the Carnival Don Rúa stood next to a cage full of little birds.
“A quarter for each fortune,” the man said to me before Carlos could pull me away. The man instructed me to select a bird, which he took from the cage and into his fist. With the bird in one hand, he took out a small box full of folded papers with the other.
"Pick a category," he told me in Spanish. My choices being love, home, and business, among others. I took a moment to consider before speaking, but the little bird became impatient. Chirping in annoyance, the bird turned his little head to bite the man's hand multiple times. In a rush to relieve the bird and the man of further distress, I chose "business."
"The bird chooses your fortune," the man said, "Sometimes he picks one, sometimes two or more." And with that he held the little bird near the box and the bird pulled out a single little paper. Before we could pay and thank him, the man put the bird close to the box again. Within seconds, the bird had swiftly pulled five more fortunes in a mad frenzy.
Carlos unhappily paid the $1.50 for my fortunes while I stood by feeling really foolish. Even worse than having been tricked by the man with the fortune-telling bird is that I later forgot the paper fortunes in my pocket and washed my pants before ever reading them.
Fireworks, parades, carnivals, baton-twirling cheerleaders, clowns, beauty queens, military demonstrations, folkloric dancing, shopping, eating, expositions, concerts, circuses, sideshows, and yes, fortune-telling birds—they're all part of the experience.
We returned to the United States before the end of Fiestas Agostinas so we didn't have a chance to watch a part of the celebration called "La Bajada" which involves a procession with a statue of Jesus Christ being carried through the streets by the people to the Metropolitan Cathedral. The statue is then lowered into a globe; when it reappears, the statue is dressed in white—a symbolic re-enactment of a Bible story known as "The Transfiguration."
One summer we'll go back and celebrate with our friends, but this year we can only wish them and all Salvadorans a "Felices Fiestas Agostinas" from the United States.