On Tour: El Salvador – 4.6

On Tour: El Salvador

El Salvador: En FuegoA decade ago, El Salvador was one of the most dangerous counties on Earth. Today it’s earning fame as the next inexpensive-yet-exotic surfing experience. Jay Larson, Saxon Boucher, and Mike Losness head south to investigate.by Tim Dowell

Prelude

[IMAGE 1]

The year is 1990; the silence of the misty Central American evening is broken by gunshots. Blood covers the face of a sixteen-year-old boy who stands looking at his equally stunned comrades. They are surrounded. A bullet has grazed the boy’s temple. He looks down to find that he’s been hit in the shoulder by a shotgun blast that sent shrapnel exploding through his deltoid region. The boy is a soldier for the government of El Salvador. Civil war between Marxist guerrilla rebels and the government has raged for nearly a decade, and in the final years of the conflict, death squads made of members of both sides have organized themselves and now stalk through the jungles and cities of El Salvador murdering, plundering, and engaging in battles with both the army and the guerrillas. Thousands have been killed and more than a million others are being displaced, many fleeing to nearby Honduras as well as the United States and Canada. The civil war is already a decade old.

March 2002Fast-forward to the present day. The man who was once the boy with the bloody mask now is twelve years removed from the event that nearly cost him his life. He watches a right point reel in the distance. He is named Ernesto Vladimir after the two most recognizable icons of socialist revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (a.k.a Lenin). His father was on the socialist guerrilla side early on during the civil war.

At a certain point, El Salvador’s internal conflict became a Cold War struggle, with the U.S. using the policies of the Monroe Doctrine to justify providing arms to the oppressive government, and the Soviet Union and Cuba secretly providing weapons to the guerrillas. Both sides were culpable for atrocities to the people of El Salvador. Vladimir lays in a homemade hammock in trunks with bare feet instead of boots and by his side is a surfboard rather than a loaded M-16. He is a quiet, peaceful man whose favorite thing to do is a layback snap at one of the perfect right points littering Eastern El Salvador. Although the civil war was resolved over a decade ago, the scars on his shoulder serve as a reminder of his homeland’s tumultuous past.

Vladimir will be our guide for the next week, leading Saxon Boucher, Jay Larson, Mike Losness, photographer Tom Carey, and me through boat rides to Punta Mango, dusty roads to coconut palm-bordered beachbreaks, and to places where plates piled high with food cost one U.S. dollar.El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, about the size of the state of Massachusetts. It runs east to west on the Pacific. It’s bordered by Guatemala to the west, Honduras to the north, and to the east it shares the Gulf Of Fonseca with Nicaragua.

Upon arrival on Friday we load up the 4X4 van with board bags and merged onto the Pan American Highway. Mango and coconut stands line the road. We’ve come at the end of the dry season, and the brown fields are thirsty for the first rains due in a couple weeks. Many of the homes lining the road are constructed of adobe, and the ones of lesser means are made of everything from palm fronds to sheets of fiberglass. The smell of cooking fires permeates the warm air as the sun drops below the dormant volcanoes that form the mountainous skyline of El Salvador. We arrive at Hotel Torola, which during the civil war was the site of wild parties hosted by Columbian drug lords. It’s quiet when we arrive. We find our air-conditioned rooms and quickly fall asleep in the stillness.

We are awakened before sunrise by roosters who have abandoned their roosts eager to be the earliest risers. Piling into the van, talk quickly begins of Punta Mango, a short boat ride fm Las Flores, the best and most accessible point in the region. Driving along the road with the windows open, Mike comments on the freshness of the air and the pleasant fragrances of the flora. As the road ascends, a pungent burning smell fills the car. In the darkness before sunrise, a light emerges from behind one of the mountains. We come around the corner, and what appears to be lava pouring down a valley is actually a massive forest fire. The farmers are applying the slash-and-burn technique to clear the vegetation so they can cultivate their crops. Deforestation is a serious problem in El Salvador, where only six percent of the natural habitat remains. Amazed, everyone jumps out of the car to get a closer look and take pictures as the fire floods the valley floor, killing the old-growth forest below.

We arrive at Las Flores, where we watch waves reel down a Burleigh-esque point, but, according to Vladimir, a spot called Punta Mango will be better. We load up the tiny canoe-like pangas for the fifteen-minute journey to Punta Mango. Jay, Saxon, and Tom load into one of the narrow pangas and motor their way through the surf. Mike, Vladimir, and I pile into the other panga, only to find ourselves in the hands of a novice driver. Sets are stacking and our driver decides it’s a good time to make a run for it. It appears we are going to make it to the outside, but we make it over the lip of a wave just in time to see a head-high wall of whitewash bearing down on our rickety boat. It covers us.

With a surge of the engine we make it through and launch off a reform that sends the boat skyward. Mike is thrown into the air and lands back in his seat with a wince, promptly snapping it in two. Mike clutches his backpack and the next whitewash hits us, filling the panga with 85-degree water. We bail water from the sinking boat, while the greenhorn pilot finally finds the throttle and gets us beyond the reach of breaking waves. Because we held them over our heads, our belongings are surprising dry. Mike and I look at each other and begin laughing.

Going through head-high surf in a tiny boat and getting a little wet would normally never have been a problem, except for the water-sensitive camera equipment that fills Mike Losness’ backpack. Mike is a gifted artist. His friends can’t wait for their birthday presents from him, because they’re usually oil on canvas paintings. Now he’s putting his creativity behind a camera, using his dad’s old Nikon to take black and white photographs of everything from young boys cracking open almonds with tiny Oldowan choppers to the numerous crustaceans populating the tide pools. His photographs may be stills, but his surfing is blurred. Mike surfs ridiculously fast, putting six insane turns where a good surfer could place a mediocre three. Quiet in the beginning of the trip, he quickly gained a level of comfort and had our group laughing and local kids smiling and chasing him.

With his camera equipment safe, Mike leaps from the boat into the lineup, where Jay Larson sits on the inside section of Punta Mango. Although today the waves aren’t barreling, somehow Jay finds the ones that are. He catches a wave, gets tubed, and upon exiting the barrel, he quickly flows through the tea-colored water and into a poised frontside cutback. Coming off the bottom he gouges back toward the whitewash, sending spray skyward toward the pterodactyl-like sea birds riding the east wind born in the mountains of Nicaragua and gusting across the Gulf Of Fonseca.

[IMAGE 2]

Farther up the point sits Saxon Boucher. Known for the grimaces he makes while surfing, it’s the faces he makes on land that have me constantly wary of sipping a drink for fear it may shoot out my nose. Saxon has a bit of a sunburn from our first day. The following day, when we passed a pink pig laying in the shade next to the road, he commented, ” It looks like me … nude.” Uncanny Oasis impressions, as well as an accent that is a mix of Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey’s George Bush, which he uses to describe the conditions to people, “Yeah amigo, we just surfed Las Flores … en fuego.” On one occasion, Saxon sent a group of girls into an eruption of laughter when he told them he is an albino. Saxon enjoys making people smile. On top of having enough comedic talent to take the stage at the Improv, where he’d have the masses spitting out their drinks, Saxon puts his boards through turns so deep the water level almost reaches his stringer. One afternoon, he stylishly rode my circa-1970s Frye fish replica from deep at Las Flores, floating and S-turning his way through sections with respect for the era and speed to match.

Our stay in El Salvador is during La Semana Santa-a weeklong party filled with carnies, costumes, circus animals, and pupusas-thick corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans, or meat then fried. Jay calls them “breaded nachos.” An El Salvadorian invention, pupusas are always readily available from street vendors. The culmination of La Semana Santa is La Pascua, or Easter, and it’s the defining moment of Catholicism, the religious tradition of most El Salvadorians. The celebration causes restaurants to fill to capacity, and we find ourselves among the bustling crowds.

Mariachi music rings through the air, and eyes turn as the gringos make their way to their table. The girlfriend of what appears to be the local Godfather locks hungry eyes on Saxon. Jay, closest to the mariachis, bares the brunt of the attention from drunks who want to be paid for dancing. Suddenly, three loud cracks ring through the chaos, sending the entire restaurant scrambling for cover under their tables. For a moment, we forget we are in a country where men with M-16s and AK-47s guard gas stations with the thousands of guns left over from the civil war. Further investigation reveals a man on the sand, smiling, sunlight reflects off his pistol, a tiny gold machine gun dangles from his necklace. Vladimir turns and chuckles. He explains that the man owns the restaurant and was firing warning rounds to get a drunken patron to leave the premises.

Our final evening is spent at a long beachbreak punctuated on the west end by a giant rock arch. We park in a grove of coconut trees, and the children from the local village play with Saxon, Jay, and Mike. A pig walks along the water’s edge searching for sand crabs among the beached boats, and soon everyone is in pursuit as the pig gracefully evades the children and surfers. Tired from the chase, everyone sits in the sand and starts snacking. The beaming children graciously accept gifts of T-shirts and stickers.

We all watch photographer Tom Carey riding my fish. Tom is an amazingly inventive photographer; as he speeds down the line in the small waves, I’m sure he is thinking of a new angle, or light, or camera that can improve his work. He rides into the shallows and steps off onto the sand.

Although the next morning we would continue on to Mayan ruins and farther on to the capital city of San Salvador, where graffiti on walls reads “McDonald’s = Corrupci¢n,” and people hurry to their jobs, that night at the beach is what we would remember-sitting in the warm sand, the sun setting over the dormant volcanoes, the pleasant aroma of cooking fires for the evening meal, and the sound of children laughing. For now, El Salvador rests at the hearth of peace.

[IMAGE 3]

ell Hammond’s Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey’s George Bush, which he uses to describe the conditions to people, “Yeah amigo, we just surfed Las Flores … en fuego.” On one occasion, Saxon sent a group of girls into an eruption of laughter when he told them he is an albino. Saxon enjoys making people smile. On top of having enough comedic talent to take the stage at the Improv, where he’d have the masses spitting out their drinks, Saxon puts his boards through turns so deep the water level almost reaches his stringer. One afternoon, he stylishly rode my circa-1970s Frye fish replica from deep at Las Flores, floating and S-turning his way through sections with respect for the era and speed to match.

Our stay in El Salvador is during La Semana Santa-a weeklong party filled with carnies, costumes, circus animals, and pupusas-thick corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans, or meat then fried. Jay calls them “breaded nachos.” An El Salvadorian invention, pupusas are always readily available from street vendors. The culmination of La Semana Santa is La Pascua, or Easter, and it’s the defining moment of Catholicism, the religious tradition of most El Salvadorians. The celebration causes restaurants to fill to capacity, and we find ourselves among the bustling crowds.

Mariachi music rings through the air, and eyes turn as the gringos make their way to their table. The girlfriend of what appears to be the local Godfather locks hungry eyes on Saxon. Jay, closest to the mariachis, bares the brunt of the attention from drunks who want to be paid for dancing. Suddenly, three loud cracks ring through the chaos, sending the entire restaurant scrambling for cover under their tables. For a moment, we forget we are in a country where men with M-16s and AK-47s guard gas stations with the thousands of guns left over from the civil war. Further investigation reveals a man on the sand, smiling, sunlight reflects off his pistol, a tiny gold machine gun dangles from his necklace. Vladimir turns and chuckles. He explains that the man owns the restaurant and was firing warning rounds to get a drunken patron to leave the premises.

Our final evening is spent at a long beachbreak punctuated on the west end by a giant rock arch. We park in a grove of coconut trees, and the children from the local village play with Saxon, Jay, and Mike. A pig walks along the water’s edge searching for sand crabs among the beached boats, and soon everyone is in pursuit as the pig gracefully evades the children and surfers. Tired from the chase, everyone sits in the sand and starts snacking. The beaming children graciously accept gifts of T-shirts and stickers.

We all watch photographer Tom Carey riding my fish. Tom is an amazingly inventive photographer; as he speeds down the line in the small waves, I’m sure he is thinking of a new angle, or light, or camera that can improve his work. He rides into the shallows and steps off onto the sand.

Although the next morning we would continue on to Mayan ruins and farther on to the capital city of San Salvador, where graffiti on walls reads “McDonald’s = Corrupci¢n,” and people hurry to their jobs, that night at the beach is what we would remember-sitting in the warm sand, the sun setting over the dormant volcanoes, the pleasant aroma of cooking fires for the evening meal, and the sound of children laughing. For now, El Salvador rests at the hearth of peace.

[IMAGE 3]