They called me Pelochucho. My best friends were Chuck Norris, Palo de Coco, and El Socio. Peseta gave us all our nicknames: mine for my hair, Chuck Norris for his beard, Palo de Coco for his height, and El Socio because he was Puerto Rican. Peseta was a local crack-head whose own name came from the Salvadoran twenty-five cent piece. At one time, he’d been the best surfer in La Libertad. Now he begged quarters from tourists and handed out nicknames.
The civil war ended in 1992 but El Salvador’s reputation for instability and a low premium on human life endured ten years after the fact. For a while, the perfect right-handers at Punta Roca rolled in relatively far off the surf-travel radar.
Libertad is a Spanish word that means freedom. Puerto La Libertad is the closest port to the capitol. Poor campesinos bought fish off the pier while rich San Salvadorans ate seafood in the shorefront restaurants. In the mid-90’s, a local drug syndicate started refining cocaine into crack rock at a house a few blocks from the point. It took the locals by storm, especially the young men. Puerto La Libertad had cornered the market on three commodities: fish, crack cocaine, and perfect waves.
A long concrete pier stretched out into the Pacific a few blocks east of the point. Fish vendors lined up along the sides: corvina, red snapper, buckets of shrimp, scallops on the half shell—a carrot-colored egg sack stuck beside the short column of flesh. Dried fish, moray eel, yellow shark’s fin oil sold in old vodka bottles. When the tide was high and the waves were small, we used to jump off the pier and swim back to shore.
La Posada Familiar was a horseshoe of hotel rooms that opened up to a dirt courtyard. In the kitchen, they cooked our meals and kept liters of beer on ice. The owner, Don Adán, looked after our surfboards when we weren’t around. After dark, a tall iron gate closed the whole place off. Crack-heads climbed a tree along one of the walls, jumped onto the roof, and came in to steal things: flip-flops, towels, a bit of surf wax.
These were the happiest days of my life. People on the street knew our names and flashed us thumbs-up or shakas as we walked by. We woke early and surfed perfect waves in warm water without crowds. Exhausted and starving, we breakfasted on beans, eggs, fried plantains, fresh cheese, avocado, and corn tortillas. During the hottest part of the day, we napped or drank cold beer in the shade. We surfed the evening glass as mariachi bands sounded from the seaside restaurants. After sunset, we drank more beer on the roof of La Posada and strummed guitars.
The first earthquake struck on January 13, 2001. Whole neighborhoods were swallowed up by hillsides. Buses full of people buried in dirt. Experts warned of aftershocks for three or four days, but no more big ones. On February 13, a new quake, stronger than the first, killed even more people. Again the experts told us not to worry, there would only be mild aftershocks. Camps of newly homeless families cluttered the highways. The government busied itself with the excavation of bodies. The earth moved everyday for months and months.
One early morning, Chuck Norris and I took a bus from San Salvador to La Lib. He pointed out the window at a field covered in white dust and said, “Look, it’s snowing.”
“That’s lime, not snow,” I said. “It’s a mass grave.”
In Holy Week of 2001, waves broke over the pier. The water was glassy and the point fired like a machine: perfect barrels, several stories tall, breaking deeper and peeling longer than I’d ever seen. There were three men in the water on the biggest day: Jimmy—the Salvadoran national champion, Chuck Norris, and El Socio. With the town’s other surfers, locals and tourists, I watched from the rocks.
Chuck Norris went over the falls on the first of a big set. I counted the seconds—one-Mississippi, two Mississippi—until he surfaced. El Socio was next. He’d grown up by the beach and was the best surfer of us all. From the rocks, the pack lifted their arms and cheered as El Socio nailed his wave. I would’ve died out there.
Blood gushed everywhere the day of Palo de Coco’s accident. It was all over his board, the sand, his body. A flap of skin from his forehead hung down over one eye like a visor. The socket was a swollen bloody mess. It was impossible to tell if his eyeball was missing or if it was still in there behind the blood. I searched for it on the sand, picked up his surfboard and looked underneath. No eyeballs. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. “I need to get in the shade.”
We rushed Palo to the hospital in Sonsonate. In shock, he puked out the front window. I lay flat in the back of the Jeep Cherokee, across the wooden platform that El Socio had installed to hold surfboards. Through the rear window, specks of Palo’s vomit flew back in and spattered across my body. Bile stung my eyes. Chuck Norris drove fast.
We were lucky it happened while we still had El Socio’s car. El Socio’s body had been discovered in his house in Cabañas a couple weeks earlier. Chuck Norris went to collect the belongings. The embassy wouldn’t tell us how El Socio died. A few days later, Chuck showed up at the beach with the Cherokee.
An optometrist operated on Palo de Coco. From the walls hung vision charts and racks of eyeglass frames. The secretary assisted in a business skirt-suit. Bracelets and rings jangled about her wrists. Neither wore rubber gloves. Palo’s eyeball was still in there after all, hiding behind that loose flap of his forehead.
After the stitches, Chuck Norris gave Palo a bucket bath while I filled out the paperwork. I guessed his age, made up his parents’ names. Palo crouched in the corner of the bathroom, on the tile floor by the drain. Chuck dumped bucketfuls of cold water and rinsed off the layers of blood and vomit. Curling that long, coconut-tree body into a tight ball, Palo de Coco brought his forearms together from the elbow to the wrist. His palms opened like a flower underneath his chin. It was a gesture akin to prayer and pleading. That image seemed important to me somehow. I thought I should make some kind of pledge over it, a resolute promise. But I had no idea what that might be. I stayed with Palo at the hospital that night. Chuck Norris drove our dead friend’s car back to La Lib to collect our savings, so we could pay for the stitches.
For the next several weeks, Palo had to keep one eye covered. We gave him shots of antibiotics in the ass. Once the stitches came out and they uncovered his eye, he had a bigger problem. His eyeballs weren’t tracking together stereoscopically and caused him double vision. Palo left La Lib. Deep in debt and back in the states, he finally had a plate installed to put pressure on the eyeball.
As the sun sets in El Salvador, the sky turns a glorious mix of pinks and blues. Columns of black smoke rise from the cane fields in the distance and give off a purple glow. The onshore wind dies down and the ocean looks thick and shiny like oil. When you take off on a wave, the mariachi bands strike up from shore, as if playing your theme song. It’s only you and your friends out there, cheering each other on.
The cemetery occupied the last usable piece of land on the point, before it became a pile of rocks. We stared at it to judge how far outside we sat in between waves. Around the graveyard ran a big block wall with one opening onto the dirt path. Robbers waited by that opening to rip off tourists. We never carried money or anything valuable, but the rumor was they’d hold up surfers for boards or shorts and make them walk back naked.
A sewage canal ran through town and emptied by the point. It carried La Lib’s runoff and grey waters like a sick river and expelled them onto the town’s greatest resource. They dumped their shit and buried their dead on the one thing that Californians would’ve paid top dollar for.
Peseta made rounds all day long. When a new tourist arrived, he showed them to a hotel and collected a percentage. He ran marijuana, cocaine, valium, and other substances to the surfers in their hotels. Like a welcoming committee, he told us what was going on, who was in town, how the waves were, what new scam the robbers or crack-heads were running. For this we kept him in spare coins. He held out his hand at the end of each exchange and said, “dame un regalo”—give me a gift. Certainly, Peseta was the hardest-working crack-head in La Libertad.
Only nineteen or twenty years old, Jamie was a good surfer but not at all street smart. Chuck Norris and I made friends with him. We had a killer session at the point one evening—Jamie, Chuck, and me. Exhausted and hoping for more waves in the morning, we went to bed early.
A loud crash woke me. It wasn’t unusual to hear things in the night. Rich kids from the capitol came to La Posada to go on drug binges all the time. Guys brought prostitutes there and beat them up. I didn’t get out of bed until the screaming. Jamie’s voice shouted: “Josh, Josh, he was in my room, Josh!”
Chuck Norris and I came to our doorways. In the courtyard, Jamie struggled with a figure we could barely make out under the moonlight.
We counted to three and bum-rushed the intruder. I ended up holding his arms in a half-nelson while he struggled and threatened to kill me. In my time in El Salvador, I had guns held up to my head. Coral snakes slithered through my legs. Waves held me down until I thought my lungs would burst. But when people ask me when I was the most frightened, I tell them honestly. It was those few seconds that I held onto that stranger, convinced he had a weapon and would kill me with it if my fingers came unlaced from behind his neck. I wanted Chuck Norris to pick up a rock and bash his head in, just in case.
Chuck was scared too. He doesn’t remember saying what he said, as the stranger demanded to be released. He didn’t remember even the next morning. I’ll never forget. The man in my arms screamed, “Let me go!” over and over, and Chuck Norris said, in the most perfect Spanish I’d ever heard him speak: “Let you go? We’re not going to let you go! We’re going to tie you up and then fuck you in the ass with a bottle of shampoo! Just to show you not to mess with the people who stay here!”
I was wondering why we would do such a thing when the owner, Don Adán, appeared in his underwear. He instructed us to tie-up the intruder and called the police. Once we had the man hog-tied with a surfboard leash my fear dissipated. Then the shame set in. This guy was tiny, just a boy. In his pockets we found Jamie’s wallet and binoculars, a plastic cigarette lighter, and a glass crack-pipe. No guns, no knives. Of course not—anything like that he’d have traded for rocks before ever entering Jamie’s room. The police came and hauled the thief away. We stayed up all night smoking dope from Peseta’s mother and waiting for our hearts to stop pounding. Strings of curse words substituted for conversation. “Fuck. I mean: what the fuck? I mean fuck”. We acted like this was a big deal, like it didn’t happen every single day.
When the first rains of the year came, the ocean turned as thick and brown as chocolate milk. Sitting in the lineup, I couldn’t even see my board through the water. The sea was hot as a bath.
El Socio survived the earthquakes, the crack-heads, the biggest waves I’d ever seen—then he died in his little house up in the hills. His body sat undiscovered for two or three days. The neighbors figured he was at the beach. Buzzards soon circled overhead. With cloths over their mouths and noses, the police knocked the door down. The embassy never told us why. It was classified.
After El Socio’s catholic funeral, we held a service for him at the beach. We built a bonfire and rolled a joint as big as a beer bottle. The local surfers all came to pay respects. El Socio’s non-surfing gringo friends were there as well. Everybody knew better than to walk around La Lib after dark, but that night we celebrated on the beach until dawn. The surfers played guitar and beat on drums. Somebody kept showing up with more alcohol and pot. Peseta’s mother made a killing.
The day after the celebration, we built a small monument to El Socio in the restaurant by the point. It was a concrete wave with a surfer on the inside, inscribed with the words “BUENA ONDA, Carlos Manuel Amador, ‘El Socio’, 1973-2001.” Everyone helped out—mixing the cement, hauling sand and water. My girlfriend’s purse was stolen by a crack-head named Weefer. All of her documents were inside—her identification, lots of cash. I stupidly decided to go get it back. For a moment, I fancied myself above the laws of La Lib’s economy. I was Pelochucho, after all.
I marched up to the crack house to find Weefer. The money would all be spent and I would demand only the documents back. At the time, it seemed a reasonable request. Before I got to the door Peseta appeared and stopped me. “No, Pelochucho, no. You don’t want to do this. It’s not worth it. Listen to me.”
We stood there on the dark street and stared at each other. I could’ve pushed him out of the way, or given him fifty cents to get lost. But this was the only exchange I’d ever had with Peseta that held no trace of a hustle. He was afraid. Afraid for me or for him—I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t want to lose my spare change. I imagined myself opening that door—the single thin membrane that still separated the crack-heads and the surfers in this town—then finally turned around. I was only Pelochucho. That was all I’d ever be here.
It wasn’t difficult to accept La Lib’s small hardships. As surfers, we understood life as a series of moments. Our mythology was full of pain sown on land so that pleasure might be reaped at sea. The waves justified the means.
What was difficult was leaving La Lib. To quit a perfect wave, with warm water and no crowds—while we still had our lives, still had both of our eyes—that was an effort like defying gravity, like moving the earth.
Chuck Norris left in the back of a pickup headed north, with his guitar and backpack. “San Francisco or bust, man!” he told me sarcastically, holding up a peace sign. It was hard for me after Chuck Norris left. He’d taught me how to surf and was the only reason I had any status in La Lib. Not long after Chuck’s departure, things fell apart around La Posada. Boards came back missing leashes or with dings. The crack-heads grew fearless, coming in every night and boldly entering the rooms.
They were the happiest days of our lives. We’ve spent thousands of dollars and countless months trying to relive them somewhere else—Asia, Mexico, Europe, South America, and all over California. But wherever we go, there’s always something. The water’s too cold. The beer’s too expensive. The wave’s never quite right.
I’m told that La Lib has changed a lot. High-priced surf tours of El Salvador are now advertised in most of the magazines. Mexican cartels bring more and more cocaine through Central America, with a wake of addiction and violence. The point’s grown crowded.
Like a gift, we were given a small window of time there, between years of civil war and armies of foreign tourists. A gift like El Socio and his brief friendship, or Palo de Coco’s one good eye.
That place called freedom was similar to freedom, in that it could be beautiful and terrible all at once. Only now that I’m gone can I clearly see the lesson that La Libertad was always trying to teach us, the point that we missed all along: Unfortunately, perhaps even tragically, and in spite of all our efforts, there was more to life than surfing.
[Photo credit: About.com]