El Salvador, a small and beautiful country in Latin America, is still largely ignored and avoided by international travelers. The country that was torn apart by a civil war in the 1980s and until recently experienced pervasive gang violence still regrettably suffers from a negative image. Right now, the only visitors to El Salvador are intrepid travelers and surfers who come here for the impressive waves. Because surfing counts as a local cultural experience, and we are all for experiencing local culture to the fullest, a surfing lesson was definitely on our itinerary.
In the second week of our travels through El Salvador, we drove to El Cuco, a remote region in the east of the country. In addition to two excellent beaches, where the locals go sunbathing and swimming (Playa El Cuco and Playa Esteron), this area boasts one of the best surfing spots in the country - Playa Las Flores. This small, black sand beach, demarcated by two massive cliffs protruding into the ocean, is one of those coveted spots that experienced surfers from all over the world flock to during the wet season (May through October) to catch giant waves in the warm Pacific Ocean. We were visiting at the end of December, during the dry season, which meant smaller waves suitable for beginners.
Finding a surfing instructor in El Cuco was easy. I asked one of the attendants of the hotel where we stayed if he knew any surfing instructors in the area. He immediately dialed a number, handed me his cell phone, and said that his friend Yeppi is a surfer at Las Flores who can help. Yeppi spoke decent English and told me that he could give a one-on-one surfing lesson. He quoted $25 for a one-hour lesson and told me to go to Las Flores the next day at noon and ask for him at the beach.
“Ask for you at the beach?” I asked quizzically.
“Yeah!” he laughed into the phone, “Everyone here knows me!”
“And what if I want to keep surfing after the lesson?” I asked.
I could hear Yeppi grinning, “$30 for the full day including the lesson!”
The next day, we drove to Las Flores. Julia decided that she would skip the lesson and instead capture my surfing baby steps on camera. She settled in a nearby ocean-view cafe, while I went searching for Yeppi. People indeed knew who he was and immediately pointed to a crumbly shack next to the entrance to the beach. As I approached the shack filled with surfboards of different sizes, I was looking for a stereotypical surfer - a young, tall Australian or California type with long hair and a washboard stomach. But the only person I could see inside the shack was a short, pudgy man, in his late 50s or early 60s, seating in a hammock and eating papaya. I asked him if he knew Yeppi. The man gave me a wide smile, energetically jumped out of the hammock, and extended his hand “Hi, I am Yeppi.”
I did not see that coming. My surfing instructor was a 5’4’’, 240-pound Salvadoran with a heavily protruding belly. I started to question whether the decision to pay $25 to this man was a good idea. However, Yeppi acted like he knew what he was doing. He asked me if I surfed before. When I joked that I surfed only on the Internet, he smiled and reached out for the biggest surfboard he had in the shack (the better the surfer, the smaller the surfboard as I soon found out). As he was applying wax to the surfboard, Yeppi gave me a short presentation on surfing in El Salvador and his own life story. He explained that Las Flores is popular for its perfect breaks and right-hand waves. The waves here are constant and reliable, and the beach is packed with surfers during the wet season. Yeppi told me that he originally was from La Libertad, where he learned to surf as a kid at the world-renowned Punta Roca beach. In 1989, he came to El Cuco for the first time and fell in love with the surf at Las Flores. Two years later, shortly after his wife divorced him and moved to the U.S., Yeppi relocated to El Cuco permanently, where he has been enjoying the best surf in the country for the last 30 years. Yeppi complained that he was getting old and that it was getting more difficult for him to surf, but he loved surfing and had no regrets about his life choices.
The first part of the lesson was on land. We took the surfboard to the beach, where Yeppi explained how to position the body on the board, paddle, and stand up. The objective of my first lesson was to do a “pop up” and ride my first wave. As Yeppi was laying on top of the surfboard showing me how to paddle, the lesson was interrupted when a stray dog ran directly towards him and started to playfully attack Yeppi and lick his hands and face. In the meantime, Julia, who did not accompany me in my search for Yeppi, finally saw us on the beach doing exercises and burst out laughing because she also expected Yeppi to be a stereotypical surfer. Instead, it looked like I was the surfer giving a lesson to this aging, burly person, who decided to take on surfing in his golden years.
Although I handled the theoretical part well, once we got into the ocean, none of that knowledge was helpful. My brain worked chaotically, trying to remember in what sequence I needed to move my arms and legs and how to synchronize my moves. Unfortunately, nothing worked. I could not stand up and kept falling off the board into the water. Yeppi was very supportive and provided a detailed analysis of my every fall pointing out what I should have done differently. Battling the waves and the surfboard was extremely tiring. After 20 minutes in the water, I was completely exhausted. Additionally, my wrists started to hurt as I was tightly clinging to the board.
However, what happened next was simply frightening. Trying to catch a wave, I forced myself to stand up too fast and heard a loud crack as my back popped. I immediately felt a sharp jolt of pain in my back and collapsed into the water. I was terrified. What happened? Did I just break my back? I slowly got up and started to drag the surfboard back to Yeppi, who was providing his feedback and encouraging me to get on the board and try to catch another wave. Should I tell him that I injured my back? Should we even continue with the lesson? I felt embarrassed and was going through scenarios in my head about how I would tell Julia that I injured my back. I made it back to Yeppi, said nothing, and decided to do another try to see if I can even continue. As I got back on the board, I suddenly felt that my back was fine. In fact, it felt even better than before, and I sensed that I even had more flexibility in my back muscles. Turned out I got a free chiropractic adjustment from the ocean.
Relieved, I tried to catch another wave only to fall into the water several seconds later. Again and again, all my efforts were futile. Closer to the end of the lesson, Yeppi got on the board and demonstrated how this should be done. Watching him ride the wave, it finally clicked in my head. My problem was that I was trying to stand up too soon. The next time I got on the board, I made sure to give myself enough time. As the wave approached, I waited, then waited more, and then suddenly I felt total zen inside, and all the instructions Yeppi gave me earlier finally made sense. I carefully positioned my body on the board, paddled, then slowly got up, firmly planting my feet on the board, and confidently rode my first wave to the wild applause of Yeppi, Julia, and random people on the beach who, after watching me hitting the water for nearly an hour, cheered on my ultimate success of conquering the ocean. It was exhilarating. The run was short, only a couple of seconds, but in my head, it felt like an eternity. I was doing this! I was surfing!
Yeppi wanted me to do another run, but I was ready to wrap up the lesson as I wanted to finish on a high note. Yeppi completely understood and was satisfied with the progress that I made during the first lesson. We high-fived each other and posed for a couple of pictures to celebrate the moment.
As I walked away from the ocean, my entire body hurt, including muscles I never knew existed. I remembered telling Julia yesterday that I was planning on taking a surfing lesson and then “surfing the rest of the day” and now that idea seemed absolutely ludicrous.
“I will surf again,” I told Julia. “Just not today…”