Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Holidays....

Life in El Salvador is seemingly easy and tranquil, maybe the friendly and relaxed nature of the people here is a result of them making up for the years of violence and hardship that they have for so long endured. Now and then I have a desire to move on and see something new, but I continuously just find myself making my way up and down the coast, hanging with different people, surfing different breaks. My main method of transportation of late has been hitchiking - a method I recommend for anyone who really wants to immerse themselves and get to know the people. Of course, its not something you can do anywhere in Central America, or anywhere in El Salvador for that matter, but along this stretch of coast I think its safe, easy and fun, and it definitely beats waiting for a loaded chicken bus. One of the most interesting days I´ve had thus far occurred while I was hitchiking.
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.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


The last week or so has afforded me with the most time I´ve had thus far in my travels to think and reflect and write. Ironically, I feel as though this last week has been the least productive for me. I´ve been living in a little shack on a beautiful and relatively remote beach, away from the bustle and stench of the city, close to the energy of the Pacific. I made my way over the border into El Salvador without a problem and was dropped off at a quiet beach called El Zonte, where life is simple and the locals are warm, where the waves break hard and perfectly. I ventured around clumsily for awhile, carrying my pack, guitar, and surfboard, trying to find the place I would settle for awhile. Eventually, as I was crossing over the point, which separates the beach and village by a little stream, I came across Raul and his tranquil abode. I told him I was looking for a room and he said he had only one. It was a simple room, with nothing but a bed, there was a toilet outside, but it rarely flushed, and the shower was a good old barrel and bowl - but this was all I needed. The real selling point was that this shack was right on the ocean, directly on the point where the waves break best, and I had it all to myself, or so I thought. My first day there I went for a walk on the beach with my guitar, and when I returned I was greeted by five fully equipped police officers standing outside my door, in camouflage, toting sub-machine guns. Their conversation seized as I came into view and every one of them locked their eyes on me. I was a little surprised to say the least but I played it off as if it were no big deal and I greeted them and made my way to my room. As I walked, trying to be as casual as possible, they all followed me with their stern looking eyes. I put my guitar down in my room and stood there awkwardly, unsure what to do at that point as they were all still staring at me. So with no other options I walked back out and attempted to start a conversation. They told me immediately to go get my guitar, so I did. Then they wanted to hear a song, so I played. As I started playing, I thought I might as well go all out for these guys and I started bellowing lyrics - smiles began to form on their faces. The song finished and they were all really happy by that point, and so I spent the next couple hours just conversing with them about El Salvador. I never really figured out why they were there, they told me that there were problems at this beach but I don´t think that was the case, I think they were just getting some R and R in the shade next to the cool ocean breeze.

The place I stayed was perfect, it was beautiful, there were hardly any foreigners, and there were lots of waves. When I was stuck in the city it was exactly where I envisioned myself being, where I thought I would be most happy. However, such beauty it seems, is better shared, and I quickly realized that I wanted others there to share it with me. I can only share so much through my lonesome writing. Thus, despite the perfect setting, the last week has been all but perfect, and the only times I really felt completely comfortable and at peace was when I was in the ocean surfing, which was certainly quite often. That being said, I´ve been surfing some incredible waves every day, and the last week has afforded me with some of the best rides I´ve ever had. Unfortunately, my board has taken a turn for the worse. It was an old board to begin with, but the last month of traveling without a board bag surely didn´t help, and after only a few sessions it began to leak and developed what the locals here call "el cancer". At that point, alone and a little lost in my head, I decided to cut my losses short, sell the board, and head back inland for awhile to figure things out. So off I went on a chicken bus ride with another lone traveler who I met in El Zonte to the heart of the country, San Salvador.

Quickly I realized that San Salvador was not a place I wanted to stay for long. I read in a guide book that San Salvador is not as dangerous as people make it out to be - as long as you don´t walk anywhere after dark. I thought that there were lots of guns in Guatemala, but here they are even more prevalent. At least in Guatemala the guys with guns had uniforms, in San Salvador there are guys standing outside of stores in flip flops and Nike t-shirts toting shotguns, with hand guns stuffed in their jeans. Of course, as expected, the pollution here was shocking as well, but I came to notice something about El Salvador while driving into the city. It seems that there is an extreme polarization between the opulent and the destitute, not only economically like the rest of Latin America, but visually. You will be driving through slums where garbage is burning and half dead dogs are limping around and then separted by a fence, and of course armed men, you will be in a pleasant palmtree-lined neighborhood where the grass is green and luxury stores and American restaurants abound. And of course, these are the neighborhoods that the guidebook recommends to stay. Personally, a mere glimpse of the "good" life that probably 5% of the country lives is enough for me, I´ll wait until I´m back in North America to experience that again.
There were several things I needed to get done in San Salvador, and this meant making my way around the city. One of the most daunting things for a traveler in a big city where you don´t speak the language I think, is to try and take public transportation. The temptation to just hop in a taxi and be taken directly to your destination is strong, but it is cetainly not very thrilling. I chose to try and take some buses instead. The first time I just walked to the street that I needed to be on and then got on the first bus heading in my desired direction - this is not advisable. I ended up in the suburbs somewhere in some neighborhood that I probaby shouldn´t have been in. After, when I began to feel a little more confident with my Spanish I began to simply ask people what bus I needed to take. Occasionally they would send me the wrong way, but it all worked out in the end.
Since I´ve begun travelling, time and time again my negative expectations have been shot down. I´ve found that positive reviews from fellow travellers tend to usually be true, and that warnings and negative reviews tend to be unfounded. It seems that the more warnings I get about places being dangerous, the more the people in those places tend to be warmer and kinder. The people that I´ve met here in El Salvador have been so helpful and kind, so much so that it is the first place that I´ve felt comfortable hitchiking, which seems to be quite easy here.
My plan was to take a bus to Honduras to do some scuba diving for awhile, but then I got an unexpected email from a friend I met in Guatemala saying she wanted to come and surf in El Salvador. And so it was that I made my way back to the coast.
Now I am here in a village called El Sunzal surfing again and feeling much better about things.
Tommorow I´m going to pick up a board from a local in El Zonte, and I think I will be staying here in El Salvador for sometime. Hopefully, I will get to know more intimately both the ocean that I surf and the kind hearted people that make this country so inviting.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Going solo...

Due to the infrequency of these posts, combined with many amazing personal experiences, it is difficult for me to discuss everything that has occurred since I last wrote.
Leaving Xela took longer than planned for a number of reasons. When you stay in one place for at least a month you develop relationships with people that you don't want to end. I suppose that is one of the great paradoxes for the traveller - when travelling you meet some of the most interesting and like-minded people whom you connect with instantly, but the connection is always fleeting, as there will inevitably be a parting of ways, and likely you will never see those people again. The other big factor that kept both Liam and I in Xela is that we finally got what was coming to us, we got sick to the stomach. This is a topic that might as well be breached, because it is an inevitable occurence to anyone travelling long term. There must have been something bad going around Xela because it seemed that 75% of the foreigners I spoke with were ill all at the same time. Getting sick when travelling can be one of the most dangerous things that can happen to you, both physically and mentally. It is difficult to think positively or clearly when you are really sick. Being confined to a dingy hostel bed and spending hours in a stench filled baño is when you begin to doubt yourself most, when you begin to long for the comforts of home. I heard of a few people who even decided to pack up and head home after failing to get better quickly.
I decided that we were only going to get better with a change of scenery, and so although we were still ill we braved a bumpy chicken bus ride out of Xela to the famous place of Lago Atitlan. The bus ride there was not so bad, and as we neared the lake, and drove along fog filled mountain passes, I started to feel much better about being out of Xela. The last hour of driving was incredibly surreal, the road was narrow and lined with flowering trees on either side, and beyond the trees was nothing but dense fog. It was as if we were driving along a tree lined bridge high in the sky. When the emerald expanse of Lago Atitlan, surrounded by mountains and mist emerged into view, it was at that point that I understood why Aldous Huxley called it the most beautiful lake in the world.
We stayed in a Pueblo called San Pedro, a place were travellers and hippies from the world around come to live for a while. There it is easy to find whatever it is you desire, from space cookies and reiki, to painting classes and horseback riding. It was beautiful but it wasn't a place that I wanted to stay for long, as it was still not the warm weather and the ocean that I had been waiting for. Moreover, the magnificent surrounding was once again spoiled by an abundance of garbage and pollution, something I'm beginning to get used to here in Central America. I told myself that I had to go swimming in this lake, and when I finally jumped in on a windy and wavy day, I found myself wading in waste, with pieces of garbage sticking to my body from the pushing current. I was disgusted and angered. I've put a lot of thought into this issue of pollution that is so prevalent here, and although it is hard for me to admit, it is really not something that we can blame the people here for. After spending some time here it is easy to see how the environment is less of a concern for many. How can people care about the natural environment, or the rights of animals, when many struggle to survive themselves? That is not to say that many people here aren't conscious and caring about their environment, but to act on those concerns seems to be difficult here. Besides, what happens here is really not much different than in North America. It is not as if there is more garbage here, it is just that they have developed the same methods of mass production, excess packaging, and consumption that they were pressured into adapting from us, except without the means or infrastructure to deal with it, or "hide" it like we do.
This discussion brings to mind an interesting conversation that I had a few days ago that really challenged my beliefs. This fellow, who happened to be from the United States, felt that tourism was terrorism. He felt that is was harmful for people from North America, or Europe, or the "first world" to travel to countries that were not as "developed". By us being here, he reasoned, the locals begin to mimick and adapt the harmful lifestyle that we show them. I think that there is some truth to this, especially when people travel without an effort to learn or become a part of the culture. Naturally, if it will bring more tourists and more money, then locations will create an infrastructure that attracts tourists. They will build big hotels, and set up McDonalds. I guess this is why I support a kind of travelling that is not necessarily exclusive of tourism, but is conducive to the maintenance of traditional lifestyles. I suppose this is being idealistic, but nevertheless, I still maintain that the crossing of cultures and the exploration of the unknown certainly has more benefits then it does disadvantages to the human condition...Just a thought.

Various circumstances have unfortunately led Liam to cut his trip short, and he has decided to head home to Canada. Liam and I were not always travelling together, and over the last month we didn't even see each other very often. I have always maintained that travelling alone is the best way to travel, and I am anxious about what the future will hold for me, but admittedly I am going to miss that feeling of comfort that I had knowing that a good friend was always close by, especially heading into El Salvador. Pero, que es la vida...

Currently I am in the colonial city of Antigua, and am creeping ever closer to the ocean that I've been longing for. Tommorow morning I will hop on a shuttle which will take me over the border into El Salvador to a quiet beach where I plan on surfing for a long while.