El Salvador Score
By Brady Clarke Brady Clarke Photography
After handing the officer back his own 9mm and opening my Pilsen beer on the steps of the Police Station, I started to wonder if this day could get any more surreal.
The first couple of weeks in El Salvador had gone smoothly. We had scored epic waves, often to ourselves, had eaten and partied like kings in the sanctuary of El Dorado surf camp, made a bunch of new friends and traveled the length of the country with nothing more than friendly smiles and helpful advice from locals. Even the hype surrounding the sketchy characters hiding in the cemetery at Punta Roca had proven to be exactly that, hype. As it turned out, our armed guard Mojo, who kept a watchful eye over me as I shot photos of Canadian pros Reid Jackson and Neil Durling pulling into chocolate brown barrels, didn’t need to unsheathe his machete that lay in his lap. No one paid us the slightest bit of attention and I breathed a sigh of relief as we all piled into the van and returned to camp after yet another successful surf mission. Even after a two-day journey, crossing the entire country, mostly at night, I remember thinking to myself that we had made it unscathed. One more day to go. No problema. As it turned out, I was wrong.
The next morning, after a glassy, head high, solo surf out front of the camp, I ate breakfast and packed all of my camera gear into a day pack, ready for our final photo shoot. The whole camp decided to join us on a trip to some Mayan temples, followed by a cool off in some mountain waterfalls. The mood was festive as we traveled in a two-van convoy, Olivier in his Panelito van leading the way. The temples were less than spectacular, apparently the ruins had been damaged in a recent earthquake and were being restored, effectively covering up the authentic ruins in concrete. Not to worry, we still had the waterfalls to look forward to.
After a spectacular drive through the mountainous rainforest, we pulled into the small town of Juarau. We made a pit stop and loaded up on cold drinks and ate some ‘street meat’ from a matronly old vendor. The picturesque little town was bathed in afternoon sunlight, bringing life to the yellow walls of a tiny igleasia, with a Virgin Mary statuette out front. I shot some photos, some of my favorites of the trip, and we all piled into the vans to make our way into the jungle and to the falls.
The road down to the falls was rough, and at times we all had to pile out as Marc negotiated the rental van through the type of ruts, holes and bumps you’d only drive a ‘rental’ through. We finally made it to the trailhead, where we wondered how we were going to get back up the road on our way out. There were a group of kids between 8 and 18 years old, waiting to guide us to the falls. For a few dollars, we now had an entourage of local kids to show us the way and watch our stuff as we swam. The trail down to the falls snaked its way through the jungle along the side of a mountain. The drop off the edge of the trail fell away to a leafy green abyss two hundred feet below.
We arrived at the first set of falls. There were a few locals cliff jumping into the shallow pool below. We decided to press on to the next set of falls. We rounded the next bend in the trail and came upon our little Shangri-La. A twenty-foot fall of clean, rainforest water, dumping into a cool jungle enshrouded pool. I stayed with the gear (most importantly my backpack containing three camera bodies, lenses and our wallets), while the rest of our group got wet. Eventually I got someone to take over security while I swam. We had been shown a small, pitch-black cave by one of the local kids. The water flowed into this tunnel and disappeared into the mountainside. We all ended up swimming through the cave, blind and claustrophobic, until it spat us out the other end of the mountainside, a good forty yards away.
After a couple of cliff jumps and a few moments spent savoring our last adventure in El Salvador, we decided to leave before dark. Our group worked its way back up the muddy jungle track. I was helping Marc carry the cooler, so our progress was a little slow. While the rest of the group pulled out of sight, only six of us remained. As we rounded a corner, there were five men standing at the junction of our path with another. As I went to pass the guy in our path, he grabbed my arm. Suddenly things happened really quickly. I looked into his face and noticed for the first time that he had a bandana pulled up just below his eyes. The four other men were all masked as well. He held up a machete, inches from my throat, while still grasping my arm. "La Bolsa!" he demanded. ‘This isn’t happening’ I thought. "La Bolsa!" he yelled again. My travel Spanish was rudimentary at best and I had only learned the word for ‘bag’ a few days prior. I stood stunned and confused staring at the machete blade pointed at my neck. I tried to offer him our cooler, "Las cervacas! Las cervacas!" I gestured to the cooler. "La Bolsa!" he demanded. The second masked man lunged at me stabbing down with his machete. Marc, who was behind me, yelled, " Give him your bag!" I jumped back, and handed over the backpack containing thousands in camera gear. Not satisfied with only my pack, they started to yell at JP (a French Canadian photographer) who, with his girlfriend Roxanne, were bringing up the rear of our small group. JP made a break for it, running back down the trail. The rest of us followed, not sure if the armed assailants were in pursuit. We stopped around a corner and regrouped. One of the original guides appeared from nowhere and handed me his machete while he picked up our cooler. At this point, we had no choice but to head back up the trail, as the light was fading fast. We were unsure if the banditos were still waiting to ambush us around the corner.
I took a deep breath, held the machete out in front of me and rounded the corner. The men were nowhere in sight, so we all broke out into a run up the remainder of the trail. The rest of our group was casually waiting at the vans, completely unaware of what had just happened. We quickly filled them in and suddenly realized that we were stranded, the keys to the rental van were in my stolen bag! As darkness set in, anger, confusion and fear spread throughout our group while Olivier called the police on his cell phone. We grouped together, picked up big sticks and machetes and waited.
After a half-hour of tense waiting like sitting ducks in the dark, the Salvadorian police finally arrived armed to the teeth with shotguns, automatic rifles and handguns. Our entire group left en masse, with a few officers left behind to guard the rental van and search the dark endless jungle for the banditos. We piled into the Police truck and Olivier’s van and worked our way out of the jungle. After snaking through the small town’s back streets, we arrived at the concrete, whitewashed Police Station.
Eventually the majority of our group left in taxis to make their way back to the comfort and security of the surf camp a couple of hours away. Those of us who had been robbed, and Olivier (our guide and translator) stayed behind to file our police reports. Over the course of the next six hours armed and bulletproof vested officers would charge out of the police station, pile into a truck and head back out into the darkness. We’d hear distant gunshots, completely unaware of what was happening and eventually the Police would return, marching a suspect in front of us to identify. There was no way I was going to finger a suspect whom I couldn’t positively identify with absolute certainty. I didn’t want to wrongly condemn someone to whatever unknown atrocities the police had in mind. I didn’t want that weighing on my conscious. Each time I would inevitably shake my head and reply, "No se, tienen los masques." Rather than letting the suspects go, they were all locked up anyway.
Olivier was invaluable, translating our statements to the Police and calling and yelling at the Rental car agency when they originally refused to cooperate by driving us out a new set of keys. It took him handing the phone to the Chief of Police to convince the rental agency that if they didn’t get a set of keys here soon, there would be no van.
So, while we waited for the new set of keys, and for the police to march a new lineup of suspects past us, we befriended the remaining officers, all the while drinking beers, joking to lighten the tension and inspecting their weapons. At one point, JP locked himself up with borrowed handcuffs while the officer pretended to have lost the keys. The police were friendly, helpful and thorough.
The bottom line is no one was hurt and material possessions are replaceable, lives and limbs are not. When we travel into poverty ridden, struggling and developing nations, we have to be aware of the drastic inequalities our mere presence illuminates. This in no way justifies these criminal actions, as robbery is a basic and worldwide offence, unacceptable in even the deepest darkest corners of the globe. But as relatively wealthy beings, surfers, who have the luxury of wandering the globe solely for the selfish pursuit of pleasure, must assume some risk and be aware of how truly lucky we are. In fifteen years of travelling, I have met countless genuinely helpful, friendly people. I’ve forged friendships, bonds and experiences with people from all kinds of races, classes, religions and backgrounds. In El Salvador, everyone from local surfers, neighborhood children, road workers to police officers were incredibly friendly and helpful. It would be a shame to allow the actions of a few, taint the genuine goodness of a nation that has struggled through the insurmountable difficulties of a civil war, with (for the most part), their sense of humanity and kindness still intact. With this in mind, I will continue to travel, learn and experience, all the while appreciating how fortunate I am to be a surfer.
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