Illustrator. Photographer. Random thinker. Um rato de praia.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Busted in El Salvador

In 1979, I went on my first trip to El Salvador. Since the early ’70s, we had heard stories from other traveling surfers about Punta Roca, a fabulous point break discovered by Miami surfer Bob Rotherham, who first stumbled upon this little speck of surfing nirvana while traveling through Central America in 1972. He totally fell in love with the country and the surf and married a local woman and settled there.

Bob “Don Roberto” Rotherham surfing Punta Roca in La Libertad.

Hitching a ride back to La Libertad after a surf session at El Sunzal. Often we were picked up by truckers carrying loads of cobblestones. We would climb up the side of the trucks and rest our surfboards on top of the rocks. Here’s me and Jeff’s girlfriend Julie hanging on for the ride.

The point break at El Sunzal.

Robert Gomez and I planned the trip and we were joined by Jeff and his girlfriend Julie. Now, at the time, getting high was a regular pre- and post-surf ritual for most surfers, but having heard horror stories of drug busts in Third World countries, and having seen the film Midnight Express, we all agreed we were not going to bring any weed with us.

We arrived in San Salvador late one afternoon and got a taxi to take us the 15 miles, over the mountains, to La Libertad. We checked into our $10-a-night motel and had dinner at Don Roberto’s restaurant while we prepared for our first Central American surf session the next morning.

One of the important things to know about surfing in Central America is that you dawn-patrol it everyday if you want to catch glassy, uncrowded surf, as the onshore winds usually kick in around 11 a.m and chop up the surf. We woke up before sunrise and walked down the dirt road, past the cemetery, to the cobblestone point and paddled out at first light.

The waves were as great as we had heard them described. Long, winding, hollow rights over a cobblestone point.

After a few days of surfing at La Libertad, we noticed local surfers lighting up on the beach, so we figured that maybe this was a "safe" country, after all. But the locals kept their distance from us, and we did not approach them to try to get high.

One night while having dinner at Don Roberto’s, we met a traveling couple from Hawaii and after trading stories and having a few beers, they offered us a joint of their homegrown weed. Robert, Jeff, Julie and I walked down the dirt road, past the cemetery, onto the cobblestone point where we surfed every day and proceeded to light up.

As we sat on the beach, under the glow of a full moon, the only sound being the clackety-clack of the waves rolling over the cobblestones, the main thing I remember is a simultaneous, collective “Whoaaaah …” from our small group. This stuff was so mild, yet so powerful, that it just crept up on us. It heightened the sounds of the ocean, the glow of the full moon and the moon’s reflection on the surface of the ocean. We all agreed this was some of the best weed we had ever tried.

After a while, we walked back to the restaurant and our new friends from Hawaii were still there. We thanked them profusely for their gift and they replied "Would you like to join us to smoke another?"

Well, of course it would have been impolite of us to refuse such generosity, so we all proceeded to walk back to the beach again. However, this time the women were feeling a bit spooked about the cemetery so we only went as far as the end of the dirt road leading to the beach. Which turned out to be a mistake.

As soon as we had finished our second joint, from the surrounding darkness came three soldiers, one from the beach side, one from the dirt road and one from the cemetery. The very first image I recall is of one of the soldiers standing in front of us, cocking his rifle and saying “Quien tiene la marijuana?" There was no doubt they had smelled our weed burning.

La Libertad was a very small town then, with no police force, so government soldiers were stationed at a small outpost from where they patrolled the town and beaches.

We froze. All the images of Midnight Express raced through my mind. I imagined having to call my parents to tell them I was in a Salvadorean prison.

Being the only Spanish-speaker in the group, I stepped forward and began talking to the lead soldier. I told him we were visiting surfers and that my friends had been drinking and partying too much. The soldier wasn’t believing my story and began a series of questions. Where were we from, he asked, what airline had we flown, what our flight number was, where were we staying.

I don’t know how I was able to retain my composure as I rapid-fired back the answers to him, while being so high that I was seeing swirly patterns of colors on his face.

As I thought I was making headway and somehow convincing him that we had just been drinking, he asked again, "Who has the marijuana? Everyone empty your pockets!”

At this moment I thought, this is it. We’re either busted, or the soldiers are going to rob us. We had been warned by Don Roberto that whenever we ventured away from our motel, we should carry only a minimal amount of cash and no jewelry in case we were robbed. Since we had dinner earlier, I knew that Robert, Jeff, Julie or I had no cash. But we had no idea if our new friends might be carrying weed with them.

As we all emptied our pockets and threw small change and motel keys on the ground, the couple from Hawaii did the same, and they were not carrying any weed!

The soldiers must have believed my story, or must have had some sympathy for us. They walked us back to our motel room as locals watched. We walked in, locked the doors, turned off the lights and went to sleep.

The next morning, as were were surfing perfect waves under sunny skies, I told my friends “We could be in prison right now.”


Anonymous said...

nice read. just happened upon your site as I was googling rotherham.

Karen ^..^ said...

I think the sound of waves clacking over round stones is the most beautiful sound in the world.

Great story. Near miss. Scary.

This is why I don't smoke the stuff. But it seemed to have held your composure for you. Good job.

You should write in here much more often, you write very beautifully.

Anonymous said...

Was there in '76. See my memories at:

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