San Salvador City, El Salvador 1980’s
Shot in the back—Juan’s father was killed while trying to cross the street as a gun battle raged between the U.S.-backed, government soldiers and the left-wing, (Soviet supported) guerrilla forces—during El Salvador’s bloody Civil War in which over 75,000 civilians lost their lives.
Massacres and guerrilla attacks spread throughout the country like wildfire for over a decade. Seeking solace, Juan’s Madre fled the violence of the city, moving Juan and his three younger sisters to the most tranquilo zone in El Salvador during the war: La Libertad, where thatch-roofed homes overlook the Pacific Ocean.
La Libertad, mid-1990’s
Growing up near the coast as a kid, Juan loved to swim in the ocean after school, bodysurfing the waves at La Paz and riding them to the beach. From the safety of the sandy shore, he watched the surfers ride the bigger, barreling waves off the rocky point—Punta Roca. At school, a few boys were fortunate enough to own surfboards, but like most Salvadorans, Juan couldn’t afford a surfboard. The war had just ended and not many tourists (surfers) were interested in coming to El Salvador, so surfboards were difficult to obtain. A decent, used tabla de surf was being sold for nearly 1,000 colones (roughly $111 U.S.)—more than most Salvadorans made in an entire month. Before the war, travelers would leave surfboards behind as compensation for guidance and accommodations which was the only way for locals to acquire surfboards. Most of the surfboards were relics from the 1970s when guys like surf legend, Gerry Lopez frequented La Punta and encouraged a whole new wave of local surfers to get into the sport.
Juan’s First Board
Part of that new wave (first generation of local surfers in El Sal) was a man named, Yepi Recinos. Yepi owned and operated the country’s first surfboard ding repair shop in La Libertad. As a teenager, Juan began working for Yepi, sweeping his shop, glassing surfboards and sanding down repairs. As payment, Yepi gave Juan his first surfboard: an extra-thick, old, single-fin board, yellowed by the sun, with a rusted leash-plug and a piece of rope tied to the board instead of an actual leash. Yepi had a leash, but that was his leash. Yepi had warned about the huge rock that was just beneath the take-off zone at the point, “We call her Mama Roca. Mama Roca, she love everybody and she like to give them kisses!” Stoked and grateful, Juan surfed the pier every day instead of La Punta Roca.
After 6 months of surfing, enduring rope burns and scratches from the leg-rope, Juan was becoming accustomed to the board: learning how to generate speed on the wave, feeling the looseness of the single-fin on bottom turns and how the board released up high in the lip, chasing barrels close to shore—then one day the board was abruptly snapped in half by a wave. Juan swam to shore to inspect the damage. The board broke cleanly in two pieces, revealing large holes that had been burrowed into the foam. Juan thought that was odd, but decided to bring the board to Yepi to see if he could fix it. When Yepi saw the board, he immediately snatched the broken pieces from Juan’s wet hands then took the busted pieces inside his shop and threw them directly into the fire. “What the hell?” Juan said, “My board!” Yepi said, “We don’t want to get caught with that. Someone used that board to smuggle drogas.”
After the Civil War, El Salvador had a massive influx of gang activity (an estimate by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime counted almost 46,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to El Salvador from the US between 1998 and 2005) and post-war life in San Salvador actually became more dangerous. The Salvadoran government had promised its people a better life, but the government didn’t create any opportunities for young people like Juan. Wealthy people controlled the companies and reserved the best jobs for friends and family—ensuring the rich remain rich. 1 of every 6 Salvadorans migrated to the U.S. in search of opportunity. Surviving in El Salvador was difficult. Juan had to take a job as a valet (parking cars for .25 cents per vehicle) and pay his way through high school so that his mother could afford to take care of his three younger sisters. Some of Juan’s peers, recognizing the lack of opportunity and poverty that surrounded them, chose to join the gangs like MS-13 in San Salvador City which falsely promised money; power; respect. It was in this hostile atmosphere that Juan worked for three years, catching the 5:30 a.m. bus from La Libertad to San Salvador and returning home at 7:00 each night. While his job selling cell-phones in the city was putting food on his table, Juan’s soul suffered as his surfing was sacrificed.
On his only day off, Juan was surfing La Punta Roca. A friend in the water offered him a job with Waterways Travel Company as a surf guide. Stoked, Juan jumped on that wave and has been riding it ever since. After two years with Waterways, he met the owner of AST and has been working for Adventure Surf Travel for the past eleven years. Showing tourists El Salvador’s best surf spots (Punta Roca, La Vaca, Punta Mango) is a lot of hard work. Every day he is up at 4:30 in the morning so he can take visiting groups of surfers out in the ocean during optimal surfing conditions (medium tide, little to no wind). The job is fun, surfing with good people from around the world.
As an ISA (International Surfing Association) certified surf instructor, one of the most rewarding parts of Juan’s job is teaching others how to surf. “Recently, I pushed a 76-year-old man into his first wave. He came back with the biggest smile, stoked, yelling. Providing people that level of pure joy is priceless,” says Juan. “People come to El Salvador to escape their jobs in the U.S. or problems at home,” Juan says. “After a few days in the water, their attitudes and their minds change for the positive. They are refreshed by the Ocean.”
“Surfing changed my life,” says Juan. “It’s helped me to afford a home, two cars, and be able to send my kids to better schools.” Today the average person in El Salvador earns $4000 per year. To put that in perspective, a small Toyota car costs $8000. A few years ago, he and his wife opened a little bar on the point called, “Ceibon’s“. Ceibon is Juan’s nickname, after the local ceiba tree. When he was younger Juan was skinny with big curly hair and his friends thought he looked like the tree. Now that he is older he has become bigger, gordo—still like a tree.
El Puerto de La Libertad, El Salvador 2011
Automatic rifles hung on the shoulders of the two soldiers guarding the pier. A pair of surfers, dripping wet, with surfboards under their arms, approached them.
“The pier is closed!” One of the guards shouted over the roaring ocean behind them, “Mira,” he said pointing to a pile of boats.
Local fishermen normally use a pulley to hoist their boats out of the water, securely docking the vessels overnight on the end of the pier, but the swell was so abnormally big that the fisherman had moved all their boats onto dry land—far from the angry sea.
The surfers looked at the fishing boats, then turned back to the guards.
“Can you open the gates for us? We want to jump off the edge of the pier then paddle over to La Punta!”
The guards looked at each other incredulously then laughed.
“No way man. ¿Estan los dos locos? Do you want to fucking die?!” Said the soldiers.
“Yeah, we want to die surfing!” The surfers shouted over the waves.
“Es tu funeral,” said the soldier as he unlocked the gate.
Earlier that morning, Juan and his amigo Carlos stood together watching the massive waves roll in at La Punta Roca. Beneath their feet, the land shook with thunderous sound as the waves crashed. Seven times they had tried to paddle out at the main peak. The waves were too big; too powerful. Duck diving was a disaster. Wave after wave detonated above them. Underwater their ears were filled with the rumble of rocas tumbling below as boulders shifted with the ocean’s mighty, unforgiving energy. Despite their persistence, the ocean would not give them a chance and kept, with all its fury, pushing them back onto the rocky shore.
And that’s how they ended up here. Halfway down the pier. Hunkered down. Huge waves exploding on the end of the pier, threatening to rip it apart. Whitewater cascading down on them like shrapnel from the Ocean’s bombs. The foundation of the pier trembled. Carlos was trembling too. They had been stuck here like this for half an hour.
“This is pinche loco Ceibon,” Carlos yelled, “Let’s turn around!”
“Fuck it. We are here. Let’s jump,” Juan said then ran to the edge of the pier and flung himself into the turbulent chaos. Carlos followed with a splash. In the water, the ocean currents whistled and eddied through the pylons of the pier. Juan and Carlos dug deep. The friends paddled hard to get far outside the break before the next set of waves could roll in to demolish them. Half an hour later they finally made it to La Punta, where five other surfers sat on their boards; eyes fixated on the horizon.
For a long time, nobody dared to catch a wave. Monstrous sets would parade in with such intimidating force that all the surfers would just paddle over the monstrosities, outside the lineup to safety. Juan felt under-gunned chasing rhinos with his 6’6″ shortboard. Another humungous set of waves undulated toward them. They all dodged the first two beasts. The third was swinging, building, growling as if with teeth—Juan found himself in position.
“Ceibon!” His friends encouraged. “Paddle! Paddle! Don’t look back! Just go! Go!” Ceibon paddled for all he was worth. Heart in his throat. For a brief moment, he thought he might get hung up on the lip, be sent careening over the falls, the full power of the wave crushing him to the bottom, knocking the breath out of him, before torturously dragging his body two hundred yards across jagged, misshapen rocks. “Mama Roca, she love everybody,” he thought. “Her kiss today would be the kiss of death.”
The fear, as he dropped into the biggest wave of his life and bottom turned, made the moment feel like it was in slow-motion. Mid-way through the bottom turn, Juan felt his board chattering beneath his feet. He was sure that his surfboard fins would let go at any moment. When the wall of water stood up in front of him, Juan thought about all those people in his life that depend on him; su familia. “I could die out here,” he thought.
Ceibon is deeply rooted in El Salvador. Surfing is his lifeblood. In the tropical sun, his branches of positive influence continue to grow at home and stretch throughout the world surf community abroad. Though the problems of his country persist, Juan believes that El Sal will, in six years, be more like the tourist-friendly Costa Rica. “In Costa Rica they live for surf,” he says. El Salvador’s President-elect, Nayib Bukele has an initiative titled “surf city” aimed at investing in beaches to drive tourism. Recently, California Governor, Gavin Newsom met with Bukele about how California can share its expertise in marketing surf-culture with El Salvador to help boost tourism and provide more economic opportunities for its impoverished citizens.
“Surfing is a connection with God; family; friends; Ocean,” says Juan. “Surfing has changed my life.” With a smile on his face, surrounded by his wife and children, in their modest home, mango trees in the yard, two blocks from the tropical water of La Punta Roca, Juan Bolivar is in paradise.
All photos in this article are courtesy of Juan “Ceibon” Bolivar.
Follow @jsurfinsal for more great surfing photos.
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