A few of us had gone to El Zonte to surf for awhile, but when the waves failed to come we packed up in haste to return to El Sunzal, our preferred location. It was not until I got back that I realized I forgot my hat, my beloved travelling hat. I had to go back. I ran to the beach for a quick session, showered, then hit the road and stuck my thumb out. Almost immediately a fancy looking SUV skidded to a stop, which surprised me because usually I´m picked up by a rusty pick up truck. I hopped in the back and immediately I was greeted by a firm handshake, a strong Texan accent, and a politician like broad smile - his name was Scott. Scott sat in the passenger seat while his El Salvadorean brother in law, Omar, drove. They told me that they were headed to El Zonte as well, to Scott´s new mansion that he just finished building. After a little more small talk Scott began to get excited to show me his mansion, and I was admittedly excited to see it. We turned down the bumpy dirt road towards the beach and then turned into a little driveway where a local awaited us to open the gate. As we pulled into the gated property I was tempted to reach for my passport - I was leaving El Salvador after all. Once inside I was showed around; we toured the observation deck, the fountain filled pool, the quote "Scarface staircase", and I was even informed that the house used 6 times the amount of energy to cool than the average air conditioner. I thanked Scott for showing me the place and told him I had to get going, I was on a mission to retrieve my hat. I walked down to the beach and found the hat, not before running into a friend that I had met earlier in Antigua, Guatemala. I eventually made my way back up to the highway, but as I passed by the mansion I was greeted by Omar - he was waiting there for me specifically to invite me back in for lunch and drinks. I went and got my friend and we returned - we ended up staying late into the night eating all kinds of food and drinking beers at the pool bar. I felt somewhat guilty indulging in all this behind a closed off fence, especially after living among so many locals for so long. I was even a little more disturbed when I heard that they almost didn´t pick me up because they thought I was a local. In the end though, despite the differences of opinion, I was grateful for the generous hospitality, and I was admittedly enjoying the sojourn into a life of luxury - knowing that it would be short lived. It certainly made for a fun, and cheap day, and all because I forgot my hat.
I spent christmas, which is celebarated on the 24th of december here, in El Sunzal with an eclectic group of people from around the world and from El Salvador. We prepared Pina Coladas and various dishes of fresh seafood for christmas dinner, while our host family made delicious tamales - a traditional El Salvadorean christmas food. We even bought a Santa Claus piñata and filled it with candy - the local kids had a great time destroying Santa with a stick, I wonder if there is more behind that symbolism....
As a child I remember always hoping for a white christmas; always waking on christmas morning and looking out the window expecting to see snow draped trees and a driveway to shovel. That desire was always stronger when we had been without snow for several weeks. Here though, it was something wholly different that I hoped for. Although we had been surfing consistently almost everyday, the waves had been weak and not very exciting for the two weeks before christmas. Then, when I awoke christmas morning and made my way down to the beach and saw the thick hills of water forming in the distance and growing into perfect waves, I knew the christmas swell had come, and I had gotten all that wanted for christmas.
New years was a seemingly more important celebration for the locals here, and they certainly make it known. The people here in El Salvador, and everywhere else I´ve been thus far in Central America, are absolutely obsessed with fireworks. They all seem to get this great sense of satisfaction by blowing up ever larger and ever louder explosives. Most of the fireworks do not even have spectacular sparkling displays, they just blow up, some are literally the size of dynamite. On new years eve we piled into a van and drove to Puerto La Libertad, the closest city, were we found streets packed with vendors of solely fireworks. It had the bustle of a fresh fish market, but for explosive devices. The family I was with bought several grocery bags full and we returned to the beach. At midnight, I was in a war zone, and searching hard inside I regretably just could not find a way to enjoy this cacophony of explosions that they all seemed to enjoy so much. I went and looked at the main highway a little later, it was covered in fireworks casings, I wondered who would clean it up. The mot disturbing part of all this is that the people setting off most of these explosive devices are children - little, innocent children! I´m still waiting to hear the tally of limbs lost that night.
On boxing day the friends that I had been with for a while decided to pack up and head to Nicaragua, I was in no rush though and opted to stay put in El Salvador for some time more. I made my way back to El Zonte yet again where I stayed for a few days, and there I experienced something else that I wasn´t prepared for. The holiday season had brought many people to the beaches, especially the city dwellers of San Salvador. Many come to the beach to relax in the sun while drinking alcohol and swimming in the ocean. These beaches though, where people come to surf the powerful waves that roll in, are not conducive to safe swimming, especially for those who do not understand the ocean well. There were about twelve young men that came together on a bus for a day of fun and sun, little did they know that they would likely remember this day for the rest of their lives. They had all been drinking on the beach and then decided to go out for a swim. I had already been in the water that day with a new surfer, trying to help him out a bit. We were at the beach break and I remember swimming out beside him while he paddled and quickly realizing that I should not be out there without a board, and that he should not be out there in those conditions at all. Luckily I was able to body surf back in before it was too late. The twelve guys eventually got in the water and began to swim, I didn´t witness it personally but apparently they were all quickly caught in a rip current and carried out before they could realize what was happening. Many of them were not strong swimmers, and likely they were fighting the current - people on shore began to notice that they were struggling. The waves were mushy that day so there were hardly any surfers in the water to lend a hand, eventually some people paddelled out and began collecting them. Twelve were sucked out into the ocean that afternoon, and an hour later, only eleven were on the beach. I came across the guys immediately after the fact, they were clearly exhausted, their hair tossled, covered in sand and looks of shock and sadness on all their faces. Many just stared at the ground, still trying to accept what had just occurred. Boats patrolled the waters all day, but the body didn´t turn up until the next day, the family had been alerted and was waiting on the beach as it was carried ashore. There was a feeling of sadness and uncertainty in the air for that 24 hrs in El Zonte - a feeling of sudden death that for my whole life I had never really been exposed to. Everyday I am in those waters, and when I picture that boy in the water, struggling, panicking, and finally giving up and realizing that the ocean was going to take his life, a chill goes through me. A friend mentioned a quote in the midst of this all - "He who does not fear the ocean, will surely eventually drown". There is much truth to this, but as a surfer, I feel that it is not fear that guides me, but rather a profound respect and appreciation for the power and energy of the ocean.