Like a well-stocked general store in a long-ago border town, the story and photo files of Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson invariably contain everything a reader might need for an armchair expedition. From their much-chronicled first stabs into Latin America and Africa nearly half a century ago, to their revisits of favored discoveries, the pair always pass along relatable, cut-to-the-quick reportage. Naughton’s clear and witty cultural readings and Peterson’s eye for color and subtlety have come to define many of surfing’s earliest waypoints. The two still surf and travel together, hatching the odd project and mind-surfing various hustles. These always seem like ways to get them on the road again. Not too long ago, they opted to revisit La Libertad in El Salvador. The place had stuck in their craw more than most of their early destinations—and warm right cobble points have a magnetism not even our high-mileage road agents could ignore. —Scott Hulet
An odor of sweat and urine permeates the air. Makeshift fruit and frijole stands haphazardly line the streets. Across the road, three men pull and wrangle a protesting sow onto the back of a pickup. Off the back of a pickup, a protesting sow pulls and wrangles three men across the street. Scraggled dogs skulk in the shadows and dart after crumbs like seagulls. Lots of dogs around, “meat day” must be coming soon (the government sprinkles the streets with poisoned meat every so often, which cuts the stray dog population considerably). Children scamper after a well-played ball bip-boppin’ in the town square, their wiry brown bodies splotched with dirt. People chatter and gesture everywhere around us. Coarse, sunbaked old men shuffle past; young women side-glance their reflections in filthy shop-front windows; slick men swivel their heads and make lewd gestures to each other. People are moving slow, very slow. A baby wails and a few chickens pluck the scraps that the dogs miss. Five drunks lay prostrate beside empty, wooden, alcohol bottles in the square, their bodies sprawled in grotesque positions. Everything seems to be coated in a thin film of dirt. Kevin took his shirt and wiped the sweat and grime from his face in the sultry afternoon air. It often takes longer for the body to register the impact of a new area than it does for the mind. And now, after a two-year absence, our senses gave notice that we were back in the tropics of Latin America. — from “Latin Latitudes,” 1975
Almost 30 years had elapsed since Craig and I wrote our first surf travel articles on Centro America. We were stationed in El Salvador at the time, and although we’d made a foray into Costa Rica in search of unexplored surf, Salvador was the place.
Our original intentions were innocent enough. Traveling for waves was all that was on our minds. If Craig could fire off a few good shots with the 20 or so rolls of film at his disposal (that’s right, 20 rolls to cover four months, or in other words about as much as a typical North Shore photog fires off in one afternoon). And if we could couple those photos with dispatches concocted over a card table littered with lousy hands and empty bottles of cerveza, then all the better. Whatever it was, the timing was right, and what was meant as a means to finance our explorations turned into an all-out enticement for the masses to start headin’ south. Way south.
Two years after those first articles came out, we blew through Salvador again on our way back from West Africa and the Caribbean. It was 1975, and my how things had changed. I remember walking out to the cobblestone point on a 6-foot day at Punta Roca—made famous by our articles—and watching in dismay as 40 or so Texans and Floridoons dropped in on one another with reckless abandon. It was raining single fins on anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by a set paddling out. Having just come from six months of seeing nothing but empty waves in Africa, it was a real shock to our surf psyche. Any illusions we harbored about the special quality of the place were dispelled by the shouting and finger pointing in the water. We looked at each other in tacit acknowledgment that the responsibility for the debacle in the lineup that day fell squarely on our shoulders. It had to rate as one of the low points in all our surf travels.
“I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come here to surf in this,” said Craig.
We both got up, boards underarms, and turned our backs on one of the finest waves we’d seen in any of our travels. Little did we know that 25 years would pass before either of us would walk out to the point again at La Libertad.
But for us, we’ve about used up this paradise and are moving on toward a better land, searching for a perfect wave yet to be ridden. This is in the future, and what happens there nobody knows. That will be another adventure, another joy, another tale. —from “Centro America,” 1973
Greg Schell had a harebrained idea for his graduate film project at the most prestigious documentary film school in the United States, San Francisco State University’s Film Academy. He told his thesis professors that he wanted to make a one-hour documentary on surf travel by focusing on two relatively obscure figures from the 70s; Craig and myself. No doubt a few of his professors scratched their auteur heads in puzzlement over this award-winning student’s choice of projects. However, the fervency Greg brings to making films soon won him not only approval, but also a transfusion of the lifeblood that supports all serious docu filmmakers: grant money.
Craig was all for the project. (“Finally, my chance to be in front of the camera instead of behind it!”) I was not so gung-ho. It seemed like the project was far more ambitious than the subject matters: us. Furthermore, as time goes by, I’m not inclined to wallow in self-aggrandizing reminiscence. In short, I said thanks, but no thanks. Craig pressed on. A meeting was arranged where I spelled out my concerns to Greg. The idea of passing ourselves off as a couple of surfing Siddharthas would undoubtedly send friends, families, and fellow travelers into fits of ungovernable laughter.
Greg is not one who is easily dissuaded, a trait that I imagine is crucial to the success of any director. That, and an instinct for a fresh take on things. He was more interested in capturing the essence of what surf adventure was like in the 70s, the “golden age of travel.” The story was deceptively simple: Take two guys who once lived to hit the road with only their boards, backpacks, and tickets to somewhere, and in doing so try to shed light on an entire subculture’s philosophy behind travel to places unknown.
The kicker was Greg’s willingness to let us have the final say on what goes and what doesn’t (most directors would rather say “Cut!” than grant this). Finally, I asked my wife if I was just going to make a bigger fool of myself. “That’s unlikely,” she said dryly.
A few months into the project, Greg suggested a return trip to the place where it all started, Centro America. It took all of ten seconds to deliberate. The logistics of leaving took a little longer; turning on, tuning in, and dropping out no longer being the option it was in our heyday.
No one gets past their forties without seeing friends or acquaintances disappear from the Big Picture. You get to a point when it occurs to you that, looking past the facades of wealth and position, at the end of the day all anyone really has of any value in life is time. And since time is all we are given to barter for what we want, everything we do ultimately comes at a steep price.
All the usual pre-trip anxieties pinned me down like a cleanup set. If Mercury and Adonis are the Greek gods of youth, then in middle-age the center stage belongs to Sisyphus, shouldering the stone of the world. Running the trip by my wife would take some tact, coming as it was on the heels of surf trips to Tavarua and Baja. She’s from Guethary in France, and so knows a bit about surfers. I figured, if nothing else, Greg’s film was giving me a credible excuse to travel for reasons pertaining to the cinematic integrity of the project. I was working this angle when, as usual, she cut to the chase. “Go,” she said. Then added in that French accent of hers, “You’re easier to put up with when you go surfing.”
Getting approval from my two children was another matter entirely. “Take us skiing when you come back, Papa!” they demanded. “We’ve got a week off school in two weeks.”
For Greg, going was no big deal. “That’s right, professor, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to get all the surf, uh, I mean footage I need.” Two friends from our travel days got wind of the project and said they had to go just to keep us honest. With the exception of filmmaker Greg, all of us were over forty and galloping toward fifty. Real fossil material. Craig stuffed his bags with vitamins the size of bars of surf wax.
The two other members were NorCal surfer John Sverko, a.k.a. Juan, one of the original locals in El Salvador; and top-mate John “Doc” Ewing, our token East Coaster. Aside from the kind of sun-weathered faces that make dermatologists beam, we were reasonably fit. None of us had the beached walrus look commonly seen at spots dominated by longboard templates that could be carbon dated.
We’d heard lots of rumors about El Salvador since the 12-year civil war ended in the early 90s. After the war broke out and the whole country really went to hell, surfers pretty much stopped coming. The gradual return to normalcy has been tenuous at best, and the flocks of surfers seen in the free-for-all 70s have yet to return.
By the time the war broke out in the early 80s, the mystique of El Salvador had run its course. What started out as a great adventure at the beginning of the 70s decade had denigrated into a crowded and drugged-out way station for all manner of surfers, smugglers, and losers on the lam from reality.
Throughout the 70s, the main man on the 7-mile stretch of coast between La Libertad and Zunsal was Bob Levy. Born of English father and Salvadoran mother, and with a granny that owned the police station (as well as the restaurant site that Bob Rotherham purchased), Levy was the one who saw or heard it all. Says Bob, “One day, Juan and I decided to walk the beach between Zunsal and Libertad. There was a whole group of guys we knew who were staying at this house in Conchalio. We stopped in to see them, just to say hi, and, man, you should have seen how strange they started acting. Like we were there to investigate them or something. There was a broken board in the living room and they were doing some work on it. The vibe was so weird we just said the hell with you guys and left.” Soon afterward the civil war came along and changed everything.
The focus shifted to Costa Rica. The country was everything El Salvador was not: clean, safe, urbane, and stable—political anomaly in Latin America. High-profile surfers staked their claims there and the media was quick to follow. Costa Rica, already famous for its beautiful women, embraced them all with open arms. On its pristine beaches—far from the upheavals in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama—surfers could mingle with Europeans and Canadians fleeing the harsh winters of their homelands.
Meanwhile, the ragged cousin to the north, El Salvador, had come apart at the seams. In fact, the only safe place to be in the whole country was La Libertad. Expatriate Bob Rotherham had opened a restaurant there in the late 70s, and he was doing a booming trade. “The place was packed every weekend,” Bob says. “Everyone who wanted to get away from the war came to Libertad. No surfers. Just all ‘Salvos.’ It was the best of times for business.” Indeed. For surfers passing through and scoring waves without getting shot at, it was also the best of times. Because for all of Costa Rica’s charms, and there are many, she doesn’t have a wave like La Libertad.
From our aerial view in the pre-dawn light, we could see tiny lines wrap off the headland into the bay. On the horizon line a scorching sun was creeping up on another day.
The old airport we used to fly into near the capital didn’t fair so well during the war and has been replaced by an international airport located out in the country. A new road, one guarded by the country’s ubiquitous soldiers, runs from the airport to La Libertad, less than a half hour’s drive away. Still, the guards couldn’t prevent a couple of tourists from losing all their belongings to bandits two months earlier, when they were unfortunate enough to choose the wrong cab driver at the airport.
Juan and I had flown in ahead of the others. Juan loves to dicker and once we landed he hit the ground running. He haggled back and forth with a couple of drivers and ended up settling on a price of $18 instead of the usual $20 to take us to La Libertad.
I had to smile as we drove through the countryside. If you had been gone from anywhere in Southern California and returned 25 years later, you’d hardly recognize the place. But here in Salvador, virtually nothing had changed. Only when we pulled up to the bay at Libertad were things discernibly different. Rotherham’s success in the restaurant biz had not gone unnoticed, and now several other restaurants and hotels surrounded his place.
We arrived in the middle of February, one of the coolest times of the year, and still the tropical air felt thick, carrying with it a whiff of decay. We paid our driver $18, then tipped him the other $2.
Craig and I had christened Libertad Point “Punta Roca” in our first article, and judging by Rotherham’s Punta Roca Restaurant sign outside his establishment, the name had stuck. Bob is there directing traffic at his restaurant. He’s dressed in shorts and a tank top T-shirt, attire favored by expat residents in tropical places. His glasses and thin stature make him look more the bookworm than the businessman. From the look of things, the food biz has been good to him, but his fair skin has taken a beating.
The surf is small, nixing our chance to gloat over arriving to 6-foot perfection. Juan and I get set up at the Hotel Rick, just across the road from the Punta Roca Restaurant. The room is depressing except for the price: ten bucks a night. Two single beds that look as though they’ve seen a lot of unsavory use share space with a small table. A low cinder-block wall and stained shower curtain separates the toilet and shower from the rest of the room. Our surfboard bags—I’m talking shortboard bags—take up what little area is left. “My wife wouldn’t set foot in this place,” I tell Juan.
“This ain’t the kind of room you bring a wife to,” he replies.
I lie back on one of the beds, intent on relaxing to the slow rotation of a ceiling fan, the kind that rooms in the tropics are famous for. Instead, all I see is a ceiling slapped together with old asbestos sheets, flaking tiles, and flattened tins cans tacked over the holes and painted white. I have the urge to tell Juan that the place would’ve been fine 25 years ago, when I could’ve slept on a clothesline, but now it just won’t do.
Suddenly, Juan starts stamping his foot across the floor. There’s a soft crunching sound. “Got ’em!” he shouts. “They wash these tile floors with a mixture of kerosene and bleach. It seems to make it harder for the cockroaches to get a grip when you chase them.” I say nothing out of reluctance to sound like a whiner on our first day.
The next morning I start whining. “It stinks in here, Juan!”
“Yeah, but you’ll get used to it,” he replies. “Just think about what it costs, not how it smells.”
That morning, Craig, Doc, and Greg show up. Juan and I let them know in no uncertain terms that we were here first. “Bullshit!” says Craig. “You just got here a day before us!”
“Doesn’t matter,” I reply. Pecking orders are important.
“We’re not staying in that dump anyway,” says Craig.
A stone’s throw up the road is a more upscale hotel, the Don Rodrigo. The three latecomers head there. It’s ten bucks a night more per person, and definitely “uptown” by local standards. The rooms even had those ceiling fans I’d traveled several thousand miles to see, although they were so low anyone with an Afro would be in serious trouble.
Back at the Hotel Rick, an affable surfer from North Carolina shows up. It’s his fourth trip to Salvador that year. A “surgical strike” mission for surf. He tells us that according to the most recent surf report, the waves should be double overhead by the middle of next week.
I was skeptical. Like everyone else, I’d put my dollar in the slot only to hear the frenzied hype of surf forecasters whose ultimate message is to deposit more dollars for further updates. “Indeed,” says our North Carolina compatriot. “I believe that as we speak there’s a southwest swell on its way.”
He then looks longingly at our room. “You boys sure are lucky to get that room,” he says. “That’s the one with the most history. Plus, it overlooks the surf.” I want to ask him what kind of history he’s referring to. But before I can he confides, “Say, I left a little something hidden the last time I was here. You boys don’t mind if I go in for a moment and get it?” Juan and I look at each other blankly. Beyond a few dead cockroaches, it’s hard to imagine what anyone would’ve left behind. A few minutes later, he steps gingerly outside, then disappears into his own room, where we overhear a young woman say, “Bien.”
I turn to Juan, “You don’t mind if I move up the street with the others to the Don Rodrigo?”
“Go ahead. I’m staying. This place is starting to get interesting.”
Later that day, Juan and I find a ride to Zunsal. Juan is anxious to check up on a house that he and Bob Levy built there some 20 years ago. “That’s a hell of a long time to leave a house,” I say.
“We left it with a caretaker.”
“Yeah, but 20 years?”
“Relax. We told him he could stay there rent free.”
On the way out the highway seems wider than it used to be. I’m quickly reminded that the first rule of the road is that there are no rules. We pass a dead horse by the side of the road. The usual assortment of chickens and pigs forage for godknowswhat.
When we get there the caretaker is gone. What’s worse, the house is also gone. No trace of it. Juan keeps mumbling “no” as the neighbors describe how first someone took the doors, then one day the roof was missing, and gradually the bricks went one by one. With each description, Juan’s jaw drops a notch. They shrug as if this happens all the time.
Juan is not taking it well, so we head into Zunsal to check out where we used to live in the early 70s.
Roadside brush hides most of the tiny community. Our old place, which was an impromptu headquarters for traveling surfers, is in disrepair and appears to be occupied by several families. In Zunsal itself, what used to be rural charm has sunken into squalid neglect. Visiting surfers have all moved a short distance south to the rivermouth at La Bocana, where several places with names like El Toobo offer rooms that are cheap (four bucks a night) and safe (provided you don’t stray far). The biggest change at Zunsal is a new Cabo-style bar/restaurant perched on the bluff overlooking the break. There’s a saying in Latin America that if you’re not poor, you’re rich. Nowhere is that in better evidence than in El Salvador. The bottomless pit of poverty is exasperating. You begin to wonder what they had a civil war for at all.
Juan is still in a dark mood over his missing house. He tells our driver about it in Spanish as we drive back to Libertad.
A truck passes us and nails a chicken that had wandered too far onto the road. Our driver exclaims, “Una gordita!” (A little fat one!) and pulls over. He gets out of the truck and heads for the dead chicken when suddenly, out of nowhere, a boy on a bike rides by and swoops it up. The boy peddles off, holding the chicken up like a feathered trophy. Our driver kicks the tires of his truck and spits out, “Beecho!” (Insect!) He mutters to himself all the way back to Libertad, and by the time we get there, Juan doesn’t feel so bad about his house in El Salvador.
We entered and situated ourselves at a table in the corner. The place reeked of stale booze and soaked armpits. Blending into the sundry atmosphere, our talk revolved around finding a place to stay, how to get hold of more money, where the waves were, and could we stomach another drink. Within a couple of hours, both our tongues felt numbed from the local tonic. Kevin scanned the bar for the first time all evening. It was certainly no place for two road scholars to talk serious business. The place was full of old winos and greasy young pool hustlers. A small group of drunken sailors gestured around the bar, reminiscing of more potent days. Five mean-looking studs hung around a torn, faded green-lit pool table. People in the back room were engaged in some sort of game that, from the curses we heard, involved money. Right next to us a woman wearing a blond wig was hustling some young drunk. The dim lights and our lack of sobriety made it difficult to read the writings on the wall. Kevin did a double take on Craig, who was slumped in his chair and swiping fingerfuls of a chocolate bar that had melted in his shirt pocket. Places like this attract a very special breed, and Craig was clearly one of them. — from “Latin Latitudes,” 1975
Special times create special people. And the 70s were indeed a special time to be surf bound to somewhere. The world by and large was an open border. There were still plenty of places where people had never seen a surfboard. Craig and I were just a couple of coming-of-age surfers who saw travel as the most addictive trip going. Hard-core adventurers—people who made our travels sound lightweight—were everywhere to be found.
It just so happened that a lot of our journeys were chronicled in the pages of Surfer magazine, which made us the quasi-spokespersons for a whole generation of on-the-road surfers. We were far from being the only intrepid travelers out there. I bring up these points, especially the last one, to Greg as we discuss the focus of his film. Filmmakers generally don’t like to make any concessions to reality if it conflicts with their vision. Greg assures me that he just wants to capture the feel of what it was like to plot a course into an unknown country, step into an unknown cantina, and take your chances in places where survival was an unknown quantity.
Do that, I tell him, and your film will have a feel for the road.
But right now Greg is just trying to get a feel for El Salvador. We venture out onto the streets of Libertad for footage of local color. Going out to the point past the old graveyard has been ruled out as too risky with the camera gear. Greg sets up a few shots with Craig and I in which we’re supposed to sound like road warriors, but instead we come off looking like a couple of flatfoots. We retire to Rotherham’s place to break open some teeth-shattering cold ones and mull over the film.
Greg is worried about his expensive camera equipment on loan from the film school. If it gets stolen, he’ll have a hard time convincing them it was a simple oversight when he neglected to mention it was all going on a trip to El Salvador. We ask Rotherham about the reputation the country has for rip-offs, a reputation that seems to overshadow everything else. Rotherham thinks for a moment, weighing his words lest they be detrimental to potential biz. He then assures us that, as long as we don’t stray far from the “safe” areas, there shouldn’t be any problems. We press him on where these areas are. It soon becomes apparent that he means the immediate vicinity of his restaurant. Greg starts rethinking his shooting agenda.
First or secondhand accounts of rip-offs tend to creep into most conversations about Salvador nowadays. The stretch of coast between Libertad and Zunsal is thick with thieves. It reminds me of our travels in Morocco in the 70s, when it was de rigueur to compare notes on getting robbed. I’ve always felt that travel talk is one of the big attractions of being on the road, but here bandidos have stolen the show.
Juan shows up with a couple of Salvadoran compadres. Although he hasn’t been back in 20 years, he can’t walk down the street without running into someone who remembers him. He quickly fills us in on the pupuserias where the locals eat, who sells what in the centro mercado (all of them old women who shout “Don Juan!” at him), the place to buy fabric, and the tailor who makes shorts, who has the best deals on fish at the local pier, the time schedules and fares for all the buses, the locations of the cat houses, the best coconut vendor, where to get the cheapest beers, what’s fresh at the town bakery, the good deals on hammocks, and the name of a guy who repairs surfboards and will drive us to all the local breaks. I ask him if he’s thinking of running for local office.
The women down here are beautiful—long, straight, silky hair, dark tanned, and always smiling. But, for their nightly entertainment, most gringos just settle for second best, The Panama House, a local establishment. —from “Centro America,” 1973
Friday night rolls around and the human carnival from the capital hits town. Rotherham’s biz, which on weekdays can get so slow it would have to pick up to be dead, is suddenly hoppin’. The weekend turns into a two-day party on the stretch of restaurant road where we’re staying. Out in force come the mariachi musicians, the street vendors, the kids selling jewelry, the hustlers, and the migrant molls following the cash flow. The music never stops and, as in all of Latin America, the LOUDER the better. From our upstairs balcony at the Don Rodrigo, we take it all in from the safety of our hammocks. Doc, who has a weakness for assuming the best in human nature, makes a comment about all the fathers who are taking their daughters away for the weekend. “Those aren’t daughters,” Craig tells him.
Soon, the street kids are delivering messages to Greg from unknown female admirers. It gets to the point where we can’t walk to the restaurant without Greg, nicknamed “Boy Wonder,” getting accosted by some young lovely. As for the rest of us, all we get are smiles of benign pity and comments like, “Isn’t that nice of his uncles to take him on a vacation?”
We’re three days into the trip and the surf is still small at Libertad Point. Juan’s point man in El Salvador, Ruben, shows up and we all pile into his truck for a surf check up the coast. On the way, we pass the same dead horse, which by now is really starting to stink. We end up where everyone who is desperate for waves ends up: at Zunsal. The point at Zunsal sticks out enough to catch even a ripple of a swell. When we get there, it’s small, and it’s gutless. We stare at it so hard the gravitational pull of our eyeballs seems to cause it to pick up by several inches, so we paddle out. Only Doc, who being from the East Coast knows a bit about gutless surf, seems genuinely enthused.
Zunsal is where I lived on three trips to El Salvador in the 70s, so I’ve got a soft spot for the place. I don’t care if it’s a cross between a mushy Swamis and a mushy Lowers. (Picture that!) Unless you’re riding a board the size of a super tanker, those places are a wash-out to all but the most serious young insects. At Zunsal, the water’s always warm, tensions run low, and there’s always something to ride. Kind of like a rest home for aging surfers.
Zunsal has its share of detractors. Chief among them are Rotherham and the resident kingpin of Libertad for the past 15 years, Lee. Both these guys dismiss Zunsal outright. Lee, whose nickname around Libertad is “Macho,” a nom de plume only a professional wrestler could love, has nothing but contempt for the waves there. In truth, it’s hard to defend the place beyond the scope of the aforementioned criteria. Although Lee didn’t mind driving us to Zunsal almost every day, he only went out once and came in after one wave. Still, it was enough for us to give him a nickname he’ll never live down: “Zunlee.”
The Zunsal camp and the Libertad camp—that’s the way it has always been in El Salvador. There are several other breaks in the area and some of them have their days. But the groups of surfers passing time in the country tend to gravitate toward these two spots. The Zunsal crowd generally prefers the cheap living, consistency of surf, and rural nature of their area to the noise and pollution found in Libertad. The Libertad surfers have only disdain for Zunsal because it’s, well, Zunsal.
One thing we came across there that didn’t exist in the 70s is an eclectic mix of surf nationalities. You begin to realize just how global wave riding is when you tour the planet. What hasn’t changed is the basic philosophy behind it all: a bit of adventure away from the mainstream.
We pass the same horse again on the way back from Zunsal. Someone has doused the carcass with fuel and set it afire. Before it smelled like a dead animal, now it smells like a dead and charred animal.
Joined up with a surfer named Chuck Walters and his van who was heading the same direction as us. This gringo had driving so wired down here he could’ve made it as a taxi driver in Mexico City. His motto for the trip was, “We’ll go until we can’t.” —from “Deeper into Centro America,” 1973
Greg was looking for a new generation surfer to interview who best personified the spirit of travel as we knew it. It was our job, Craig’s and mine, to find that person. About a week into the trip I approach Greg and said, “I found her. The one you want to interview.”
“Yeah. She’s from Canada.”
“A chick from Canada?”
“Hey, you said find someone. You didn’t say what gender.”
I had had a feeling that Greg’s estimation of us was taking a slow descent, but now I sensed a real tailspin. I quickly added, “Juan and Doc talked to her too. She’s the one.”
Her name was Dawn. She was 22. She had flown into Mexico City from Vancouver and traveled overland with a surfboard on local buses the rest of the way. She was renting a room near Zunsal and finding it so cheap that she decided to extend her stay there by a month. Her plan was to continue on down to Nicaragua and Costa Rica via buses with her surfboard. By herself. The point is she was out there doing it. Alone, no less.
She showed us where she was staying. It was exactly the sort of Spartan quarters that we lived in way back when. Cheap, too. I felt a pang of shame when I compared her place to our rooms at the Don Rodrigo. Craig said nothing but looked grim when I asked, “Are we getting soft?” At least my wife was not within answering distance.
After Greg interviewed her, he seemed well pleased. Our credibility was up again. For the time being.
Paradise to us meant several things that every surfer dreams about but few get to experience. It’s a combination of warm, transparent ocean, mixed with repetitioning infinite tubes, unpopulated in a tropical setting. We found all this here, with the exception of crowds. It has multiplied enough here to bring the bad vibes and hustling for waves out from the closets back home, with the hassling being its worst between locals and newcoming surfers. — from “Centro America,” 1973
Probably the biggest change on the surf scene since the 70s is the increase in local surfers. The first generation of surfers in El Salvador were the ones who started on the boards left behind by traveling surfers like us. A lot of them had natural abilities and were limber in the way all kids are who learn in tropical waters. That generation has come and gone.
The ones out in the lineup now are far more savvy to the ways of the surf world. They know what’s happening. They’ve got the look. They’ve arrived. There’s a surf shop in Libertad, The Mango Lounge, where locals can hang out and watch surf videos. There’s also a board repair garage by the beach that could belong in any beach town in California. Our driver, Ruben, has his own shaping room and skateboard ramp in the back of his house. It costs Ruben and his pregnant wife about 60 to 100 colons ($7 to $12) a week to live. We give him 100 colons every day for driving us to Zunsal.
The current scene in the water includes a mix of bodyboarders and local surfers. Most of these guys are friendly once you make the initial contact. On the weekends, when the rico kids from the capital descend on the beaches, it can get quite crowded. Mind you, it’s nothing like in Brazil where the situation in the water is completely out of control (much like the country itself, but that’s a subject for the sociologists to ponder). Still, there’s something about Latino machismo the world over that compels them to paddle up the line no matter what. The Hawaiian/California tradition of actually completing the ride is still a foreign idea to them. In vogue is the nouveau approach, which goes something like this: Try the latest radical moves you see in the mags, and eat it. The innate ability is there, and someday they’ll make those moves, but that day is still a ways off.
Of far more pressing concern to the current generation of Salvadoran surfers is making it unscathed through life. While the civil war was unable to unravel the social structure, crack cocaine has taken up the battle. Its grip on the entire country is real and accounts for the epidemic of robberies (also, there tends to be a lot of guns floating around after civil wars). Kids around Libertad sell rocks of crack for 50 colons (about $6). The dealers prefer to have children selling it because the police won’t jail them—they just confiscate the rocks. The drug has cut a wide swath through the local surf scene. It’s a sad state of affairs when something as banal as crack takes out civil war survivors.
Spent the night on the beach. Fell asleep to the usual electrical storms—incredible displays of natural juice—only to awaken to the sound of thunder from the sea. Mother Nature came through; a swell had arrived. — from “Deeper Into Centro America,” 1973
We’re ten days into the trip and it’s still a no-show on the big swell. We’re getting antsy. Sure, there have been waves at Zunsal every day, but nothing over 5 feet. North Carolinian Greg has been conspicuously absent since the double overhead surf he predicted failed to appear. We suspect he’s holed up in his room with the girl who likes to say “bien.”
Zunlee shows up at the Don Rodrigo before sunrise to tell us we’re not like the usual raft of idiots that drift in from the States. As such, he’ll take us to a secret spot. After some grumbling over why it took him so long to decide this, we pile into his late-model pickup truck and set out from Libertad.
Driving the coastline of a foreign country is one of the simple pleasures of travel. Especially in warm-weather countries. A set of wheels, a board on top, and a tropical wind blowing through it all—la dolce vita.
In fact, one of the safer places to be in El Salvador is in your vehicle. It’s not like Mexico where bandidos at remote surf locales set up roadblocks where you have to wait in line to get robbed. In El Salvador, aside from the occasional dead horse and loco driver, it’s an open road.
Zunlee soon clues me in on his ulterior motive. La Libertad is the last stop for him in a lifetime of chasing waves. He bluntly tells me that he doesn’t want to see a shower of assholes every time he paddles out, compliments of us. He and Rotherham had it good, real good, for a solid 15-year stretch. During those war years they pretty much had it to themselves. And now, just when he thought it was safe to go in the water, Peterson and Naughton show up again. He was concerned.
The previous evening, Rotherham had bent my ear extolling the merits of Libertad now that the war was history. Bob sang a different tune 20 years ago, but times change—as they do for each of us—and now it’s all business. I tell Zunlee that, Bob’s good intentions notwithstanding, tourism is a hard sell in a country where 90 percent of the rivers are polluted; where the stream that runs through town and empties out onto the beach is the foulest body of water I’ve ever laid eyes on; where a sewage treatment plant right out at the point drops a bucket of chlorine into the swill and flushes the whole lot out into the lineup every couple of weeks; and where some cracked-out kid will threaten to kill you for a bar of wax. Zunlee agrees that it’s hard to promote a place like that. But he’s still concerned. And knowing our track record, I can see why.
After about an hour, we get to his secret spot. It’s one of the most scenic places in the country and the waves are good to boot. Hard-breaking peaks slam onto sandbars formed by a rivermouth. About a dozen local surfers and bodyboarders are out. After mushy Zunsal and small Libertad, it feels good to pull into a few waves that can punch back. One wave drilled me so hard, I think it left a permanent indentation of my considerable bulk on the bottom.
The swell finally starts to pick up on the last couple of days. Not big enough to make it epic, but strong enough to show promise. We get a few good sessions in, and then suddenly it’s time to leave. The day before we’re scheduled to go, Zunlee takes me aside and says the latest surf fax is calling for a swell to hit in the next couple of days. It’s going to be overhead at Libertad, he adds. I phone my wife with the news. She’s less than enthusiastic. But as I mentioned, she knows a bit about surfers, and says it’s all right by her if I stay longer. My boy and girl are not so easily convinced. “It’s snowing in the mountains, Papa!” they chime.
The photographer in Craig kicks in: “If it’s good, I’m staying.”
It’s Saturday. I calculate the amount of time I’ll need to make good on my ski week promises. “OK,” I say to Craig. “Three more days max, and only if tomorrow morning it’s really showing.” Craig agrees.
We’re up before sunrise on Sunday morning, and the big swell Zunlee predicted isn’t there. Ruben shows up to take all of us to the airport. He gives each one of us a La Libertad surf T-shirt as a going-away gift. Zunlee appears and changes his overhead surf prediction to mid-week. Despite what he’d said about us blowing open his quiet niche, he’d like us to stay. “Mid-week is too far off at this time in my life,” I tell him. We pile into Ruben’s truck and head for the airport as the sun turns the heat up on another day. In a couple more days, I’ll be skiing with my kids. Times change, all right, for Bob and for everyone.