Saturday, 11 June 2011

Riding The Hog

I WAS MOMENTARILY blinded, floating on my back amid a hissing white world, the glare of the sun burning my face; the leash on my right ankle taught as the wave dragged the board shorewards. Pulling the leash, I was clinging to the board when the second wave of the set crashed over me, the roar of water deafening. The world turned a deep green momentarily, and I gasped for air as the third one struck, winding me. This set over, I climbed back atop the board and started paddling back out. I could see Sean thirty yards away, a massive grin on his face as he sat waiting for another powerful set of waves to come in from offshore. I grinned back, wondering what the bloody hell I was doing out here?

Myself and Sean have a mutual friend in Leeds named Ash. We'd figured this much out on meeting in Tree one night. Sean was travelling down towards Colombia with his girlfriend from Medellin, and they're getting married next year. Nice trip. I'd never tried surfing, unless you count those crappy polystyrene boards you buy on holidays in Devon when you're ten years old? Anyway, we'd been on the same boat out of Utila and headed to Copan, Honduras, together. They were heading for El Tunco in El Salvador, whereas I was heading for the capital.

The bus pulled out of La Ceiba, bound for San Pedro Sula. We were hardly out of the terminal when other passengers were flagging down the bus. A young woman in her mid-twenties came aboard. She was tall and well-dressed, and likely one of the most beautiful women I've seen in the Americas: stunning does her an injustice. I was one seat from the back, and she sat behind me, near a family. She played with a little girl for a while, but kept catching my eye. She asked if she could sit next to me. I wasn't going to say No, was I? My Spanish was rusty after 2 months on Utila, so I only got half the conversation we had. She asked where I was going, and if I was travelling alone? Did I have a girlfriend? She told me she was single. My antennae twitched at this, and alarm bells rang when she showed me all her family photos on her phone before offering me a drink. I've experienced this before, in the Philippines. I turned down her drink, as I had my own. I was offered candy. Smiling, I told her that they were bad for the teeth. She kept up sporadic smalltalk while sending and receiving a few texts. On reaching the halfway point, she went into the restaurant, whereas I stayed on the bus. I had to laugh when she reappeared with a couple of apples. Obviously better for the teeth. I shook my head and told her I wasn't hungry. She flashed me a winning smile and tried to insist; several times. I declined. The smile faded rather rapidly. As the bus set off, she made a call, turning her head away from me to speak. I listened in and overheard "I told him I do not have a me at the other side of the terminal." When the bus came to a stop, she was up and away without even a glance in my direction. A little odd, considering she'd wanted to be friends earlier? I considered calling her name and giving her a sarcastic wave, but didn't know who, or how big, her accomplice was. On exiting the bus, she was out of sight. My Dad's brought me up to question things which look too good to be true, because you usually find that they are. And believe me, this gorgeous siren truly was too good to be true. Bit of a nasty streak though, don't you think? I've since heard that this bus route is notorious for drugging-and-robbing. You can't be too careful.

After a night in Copan, I was waiting for a shuttle bus to El Salvador. Sean and Susannah turned up, and we were joined by another Yorkshireman and a loud Welshman I nicknamed Brad Pits, due to the noxious stench coming from under his arms every time he leaned forward to rest his forearms on my headrest. Repugnant. The conversation was a banal mix of laddish one-upmanship and out-and-out bullshit. My headphones were soon on, and Sean told me at the border that he'd followed suit: it was unbearable.

We crossed the border into El Salvador, the Immigration men bemused at our requests for a stamp. The CA-4 Agreemement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua means that we are supposed to get a 90 day visa for all four countries, but most people get a fresh stamp in each country and a further 90 days. It makes more sense to us. And besides, being a graphic designer, I wanted a nice Salvadorean stamp for my passport collection.

Heading through the countryside, it soon became clear I'd swapped one country full of small men in big hats for another country of small men in big hats. But El Salvador has a slightly different feel to it, a charm which I can't quite put my finger on just yet. A tiny gas station with a bashful, bored attendant blasting salsa from a tinny radio; two beautiful female traffic cops checking a driver's papers by the side of the road, one catching my eye as we excuse for breaking the law if ever I saw one; an old woman walking roadside, a huge bundle of firewood atop her head, secured by a headband of cotton; corrugated-rooved lean-to huts giving way to concrete houses as we neared San Salvador's beating heart; street vendors alongside the Pan Americana highway, leaping aboard schools of slowing buses to sell everything from cakes to toothbrushes; the constant blare of horns and traffic belching fumes; an old caballero atop his horse amongst the stalls, white-hatted in a spotless shirt and trousers, blanco pony immaculate beneath him...a proud, defiant anachronism, oblivious to the cacophony of this modern life raging about him.

Night fell as we neared the capital, and I decided to head for the coast first. Tunco is a tiny one-street village, dead during the week but busy at the weekends when Salvadoreans come to party. It's not a picturesque beach, it's black volcanic sand and piles of rocks and dead trees strewn across its length lending it a post-apocalypic air, akin to a Mad Max set. But people are just here for the surf. And it's a relaxed place to hang out, I got waylaid for a week. So I decided to try surfing. Sean's a surfing evangelist in much the same way I promote the undersea experience. He lives for it. So he was to show me the ropes. We rented boards and headed out. I wasn't expecting an epiphany, but would certainly settle for a physique like some of these regular surfers, if this was the way to get it? Not that that would likely happen, what with my beer habit.

Catching a wave is not a problem. Paddling out to the waves is the problem. The rip currents here are strong, and you can be carried halfway back down the beach before you're even 20 metres out to sea. It's absolutely shattering, and it's no wonder the loacals are built as they are. My shoulders were aching within a few minutes. My problem was that Tunco's wave is not ideal to learn; my arrival coincided with the biggest swells for some time, and some of the olas were twice head-height. Heading out to try and ride these was perhaps a little foolhardy. I was content to sit out there on the shoulders of the waves and watch the experts. Day Three was to change things for me. The surf was impossible to get past, I didn't have the experience nor the stamina to break through to the waves offshore. I was being carried towards the central spot on the playa where the waves smash a huge mound of rocks; better to abandon this and go for a pint, I reckoned. Almost at shore, and making a right spectacle of myself, I was trying in vain to reach the safety of the beach. A big wave caught me, and I desperately tried to cling to my board as I was flung toward the boulder-strewn sand. I was thrown onto the edge of it, and tried to climb aboard once the set passed. Immediately I felt one of the five ribs I broke in Thailand, November 2008, aching acutely. Oh shit, this was going to interfere with my diving somewhat. And travelling around with a heavy pack was going to limit my recovery. Happily I was provided with Plan B.

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