Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Heading home...

While we both agreed that there were parts of home we were looking forward to, it was not easy to say goodbye to this surprising paradise.

We woke at 6 a.m. and loaded up the car in the dark, waved goodbye to the wild ponies and burros, and that was it. Heading north on HWY 200, as the sun crept up over the Sierra Madres, we watched Mexico going about the business of waking up. Dogs lolled in the middle of empty streets, isolated lights turned on in otherwise dark houses, workers and kids in school uniforms waited at remote bus stops, tiendas rolled up metal doors, as the light grew brighter, cars and busses flooded the streets and we rode in on rush hour traffic through the smoky port city of Lazaro Cardenas. I read to Nic about pozole Thursday in Zhuijatinajo, just a couple days too late to try it. Without the looming tropical tempest and dark clouds of our arrival, a week earlier, sun-drenched Michoacan countryside takes on a whole new feel. Even the creepy town we’d ran from, now looks quaint and charming. Not at all The Shining set we’d experienced earlier.

At some point, in between trundling over gi-normous speedbumps (topes!) that slow traffic through towns and near-death (depending on who you ask: passenger or driver ;) passing experiences, we go a little car-crazy -- we get reception for a bad American 90’s station (ie. I bust out in with bad Rod Stewart lyrics) otherwise we hungrily search for any Mexican music available. Thanks to countless hours on the road, Nic’s mastered the impromptu, heart-wrenching Mexican ballad thanks to a tutorial on the elements of a classic song, which include: mi amour, mi corazon, mi alma, llorar, tengo nada, me dije…

We arrive in Puerto Vallarta in just over 10 hours of straight driving with only one voluntary stop for coca-cola and gas. The only other stops were military checkpoints, which we’ve gotten used to, as much as you can get used to kids with guns respectfully (always, very respectfully) requesting permission to search your car. The methods of searching are still a mystery – they range opening bags and checking under seats to looking at bags and opening doors, to (the most interesting) a small black box with an old-school antennae that one soldier carries while walking from the front of car to the back of the car, repeat, and send you on your way. It was pretty uneventful.

We arrive in Vallarta, determined to book (for our last night) the most ostentatious hotel we could find on the Nuevo strip. Not to be disappointed, we found the audacious Fiesta Americana, complete with big-ass palapa lobby (this is at least 4 stories high) with stream running through, potable agua, and American and Canadian flags flying with the Mexican flag. Despite being surrounded by these "comforts" of home before heading out, it still took some adjustment to get used to talking in English, roads without topes, and "50 degrees and cloudy." :)

Monday, September 29, 2008

That Sharky Feeling

It was our last afternoon today. The waves have mellowed further still. Nic’s determined we make the most of our last day, and while I loudly complained about my deflated arms, I agreed we had to do it. We had to surf just one more time today. (Such problems is life) Without any afternoon storm clouds to veil its light, the sun beat down with unusual intensity and prompted a mini-mariachi dance just to get from the black sand past the sea flotsum to the cool water.
Perspiring from just the short walk down, we paddled out one last time. A hot offshore breeze lacerates the gentle afternoon waves, little dappled cuts that sparkle with each movement. They reflect the pale-blue cloudless sky. In the afternoon sun, everything takes on a silver-tint. Staring straight ahead, paddling, it starts to feel like sky and sea are all that exist anymore.
It’s like we’re all old friends now. Those in the lineup smile or wave, or the Texans just call out a celebratory, “Nic and Joya!” as we catch up on all the nothing that has passed since the morning’s session.

Tired, I don’t do much. I try for a few but can’t seem to make my arms move like they should anymore. Time passes and I wonder if I’ll end my last session with the paddle of shame back to shore, so far away.

A wave rolls in and feel it pass under me and watch it roll to the shore, leaving behind a smooth surface with only a few bubbles of foam to mark the passing. It flops and struggles in the water then. Something dark and big. The water boils, smoothes and another wave rolls through and wipes it out completely.

Frozen, this guy looks at me – you saw that? Don’t know what that was but it was big.
I saw it. We watch the spot, but nothing more. We conclude it’s a turtle. But I’ve made up my mind it’s time to be done. The next wave comes in. The first of a big set. Heartpounding, knowing that if I don’t catch this one, I’ll get washed right over the shark-turtle spot. Shiver. I wave my tired arms as fast as I can, my heart pounds, as I’m pulled up and up. I slide down as I try to stand and spray dusts my shoulder and head. It’s not pretty, but on accident, I catch the biggest wave of my week. Thanks to a shark attack that never happened.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It’s probably not gonna kill ya…

It’s an amazing wave. Steady, just strong enough, and long. Both Nic and I have caught some fabulous rides. A soft up, a pop and you’re off. Free and clear of the water, pushed down the line for what feels like eternity, as gentle tropical breezes roll over you. Breathless and smiling, triumphant.

Between those moments of glistening perfection, we’re both discovering pockets of absolute frustration. Watching the more-experienced pick off wave after wave with ease as I try for just una mas and my weary body fails again. On this particular morning, my arms and morning optimism had slowly given out after too many blundered attempts. Despite a mad scramble to the outside, I got pummeled by a rogue set. One after another they consumed me. Sputtering and tired, bleeding from a fin that cut a line from my kneecap to heel, I make a beeline out of the lineup to I catch my breath.

As he paddles by, on a flower-covered surfboard that matches his white-haired wife’s flower board, he tells me I’m too far out. You need to get inside, these waves here—probably not gonna kill ya.

Leathery, tanned skin accentuate ageless bright blue eyes. He’s right. I smile then wearily fall in-line behind him, as he continues.

It might look scary, but you gotta keep pushing yourself. Sure, you’ll get pounded a couple times, but that’s the only way to get better. Don’t worry about those other guys out there, they’ll go around ya. Now, they definitely ain’t gonna kill ya. These waves here – he points to the fresh sea-green swells curling in – probably not gonna kill ya either.

My last few years of surfing: The long drives, damp wetsuits, cold mornings in colder water, carefully picking my way--on a rainy day--through slippery sandstone cliffsides and rocks to surf with Steve and Leslie. Like a football coach, Steve points to my position and shouts orders above surfs roar. Don’t be scared to take a few to the head, he says. Leslie laughs. I paddle with all my strength, until the moment I think I might stand a chance…and then I pull back. The fear of falling, of taking one—any one--on the head, is too great and I would rather feel the wave pass through me--strong, powerful, up and over, and a gust of icy backwash to the face—than to risk falling into those churning jaws if I fail to stand up. Here in Mexico, I imagine it’s the same surf ghosts that haunt me.

Before paddling off, he tells me, You gotta push yourself, you gotta challenge yourself, give it all you got – if it shakes you up, you’re doing right and it’s probably not gonna kill ya.

Thinking of the increasing complexity of my life, of late. The gut-wrenching stress and sickening fear that has haunted my days and nights of the last couple years as I tried to pick my way through the maze of my carefully lived life, of late. I remembered when it wasn’t this way. When I was 17, dreaming of 30, and anything was possible. Now I’ll be 30, I have done what I thought one should do by 30, and I laugh at the ways I see myself resolutely clawing my way back to the daring vitality, the happy simplicity of 17. And, perhaps it’s really that simple. Perhaps there are two kinds of things in the world: those that will kill you and those that probably aren’t gonna kill you.

It’s the refrain that replays in my head as I lay down to paddle, slowly at first, then after a quick look back, I arch my back higher, I whip my arms back and forth until my whole body moves in unison with the intent of catching this wave. There is nothing else. There is no world, no other people, no “what happens if I fail and fall” – there is only this wave and this wave only. As it pushes, and green walls slide up, I’m pounding the water with all my strength. And just when I think I’ve lost it, I’m hoping to my feet and whipping the board around to bear left, left, left to the warm, sea-green expanses awaiting.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In the lineup.

The first couple mornings of surfing were like no other I've experienced.

A procession of pristine green swells roll through the bay at measured internals. I’ve never seen such an over-abundance of perfect waves or better riders.

My favorite riders are the old ones. They’re each withered, white-haired and perfect candidates for languishing in idle retirement – but instead they dance on waves with an energy and grace that could only result from decades of practice. Shrill laughs, jokes, and loud submarine-style “aah-ohhh-gaww” cheer anyone on a wave. I’m surfing amongst 60’s surf legends and they’re making submarine calls with every wave they catch?! It’s ridiculous and refreshing. Before leaving town, my bro and sis, Axel, and Anya, had told us some colorful stories about them. Now to see them in person is like seeing a favorite cartoon brought to life. Corky Carroll, with a tuft of hair and bulbous balloon navel (the result of some old-age deficiency) pulls his red rash guard up to his neck in defiance. He surfs the biggest wave yet, with complete comfort. Tim Dorsey, follows suit in a speedo. A woman, with white-blonde hair that radiates against her leathery brown tan, rides a flowered board that matches her husband’s and catches waves that make them holler even more. They yell that she looks like Ms. Venture County 1968. She smiles slides down the wave, red toenails tapping down the board to the dangle over the nose.

They don’t let anything stop them – nature, age, youth, or otherwise. It’s like finding out that, all this time, Peter Pan’s vacation home is in Mexico. While the bodies are old, there’s a youthful spirit, goodwill, and positive energy to the group, that is unlike any other and it’s contagious.(It strengthens my resolve to surf till I die, even if I never get past mediocre.) Everyone in the lineup, walking on the beach, drinking Corona from sweating glass bottles from enramadas are some of the friendliest we’ve met. It’s the aloha spirit of the 60’s, says the most talkative of the bunch, You don’t find that around anymore, but in special places. We keep it alive here.

He’s pleased that we appreciate it. He rattles off stories of building beach houses, surfing at Middleton when it meant dodging military police to catch the perfect wave, the broken neck and Vietnam, ancient southwest narratives, and the book he’s going to write.

Later that night, we see Dorsey, walking the beach at sunset in only a navy blue Speedo and straw hat. He’s followed by a pack of neighborhood dogs of all shapes and sizes, all panting and jumpy, joyfully clamoring for his attention. He talks to them lovingly as he herds them along. He throws a stick and 5 or 6 dogs tumble into the surf after it. As he walks towards his beachside casita with a couple resident goats complacently chewing the front vegetation, he honks the rubber horn (“ahh-oohh-gaww”) on the top of his straw hat, as the happy hounds chase after him.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Getting Settled...

In one direction it’s vacation casitas and rustic cabanas. In the other direction, there’s a handful of two story vacation villas, in various stages of completion. In every direction, but west, there are coconut palm trees.

In the west, the ocean lives. It rolls and breaks at one point, but is otherwise relatively flat. During the day, mellow waves steadily deposit woody bits of the inland along with all sorts of plastic refuse. It collects in piles that cover the beach. In front of enramada Illianet’s, to clear a path to the beach, they rake the wood in long piles and burn it throughout the night, giving the dark sand an even darker charcoal black finish in the morning. Here we talked to Mario, the short, stout, gruff overseer of the new two story casitas behind Illianet’s about renting the top floor with a gorgeous oceanview for the next week after making up our minds that it would be worth the extra pesos to spend the rest of our vacation in relative luxury.

When we return from a trip to Xtapa to get cash, I detect Mario’s grumpiness softening to something like indifference. He makes a point to introduce us to Humbert, who we talk into renting us boards for $10/day starting in the morning. That night the sun sets and cows, one burro, and ponies (real wild ponies! after some heated debates, even Nic had to eventually agree, these are wild ponies.) graze beneath the coconut trees.

Adjusting to surf time

We stop at Barra de Nexpa to take in the pounding surf. Only a handful of short-boarders are attempting the rough, muddy wave. The rest of the town is deserted. Up and down the beach, empty palapas that should host throngs of sunny, euphoric tourists stand, dark and unwelcoming. Without the distraction of lively people, it’s eerie and strange. We leave promptly.

The next stop is another small beach-side village. The magic wave we’ve heard about fulfills all stories and peels down the line for minutes on end. It’s mind-blowing. We greet two surfers. They happen to be from Bellingham, WA. They drove all the way down and are “stuck” until their van get’s fixed. How long have you been here?

Saltwater bloodshot eyes look at us. What day is it today?

He asks the question like one might ask you your name. With casual indifference, because it doesn’t really matter whether you respond with “john” or “joya”, it’s a mere technicality. I have a hard time remembering. Jen and Eric left yesterday the 22, Sunday.

Nic chimes in with today’s Monday the 23rd.

We look at them, eagerly. As they look at eachother, assessing time that's come and gone between morning beach swells, high tides and afternoon siestas.

Five weeks? We’ve been here five weeks.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thank you, Marc Anthony!

The next town, 20 miles away, down a dirt road is a collection of shacks and one out of place two story hotel. It’s peaceful and welcoming in a simple and white-washed way. Its pool dares to actually glisten in the evening light and a tiny restaurant serves a couple guests – a stark contrast to the previous place. On a huge outside wall is written the hotel's slogan, un lugar differente por jente differente. Literally, a different place for different people.

We head to the office and find nothing but a Spanish sign to interpret. We head to the restaurant to inquire about a missing office manager. I explain we’re looking for a room for the night. The waitress rattles off a response I can only capture bits and pieces of. But I understand she wants me to try the office, there is someone there to help you.

I look at her, how to explain she must help us as there is no one else! Oh the drama!

Before I can blink, out pop the words, “Pero no hay nadie…” It’s part of the refrain of my favorite Marc Anthony song, with a hot latin beat that makes you want to salsa what your momma gave ya: No hay nadie como ella, tan dulce, tan bella...!(There is no one like her, so sweet, so beautiful...!)

She repeats it, “No hay nadie?

I nod.

I can hardly believe the day has come when Hispanic pop culture is going to save the day! Her brow furrows, she gets it. She walks off to track down the office manager who helps us to a simple room complete with air conditioner, sans evil spirits.

Thank you Marc Anthony!