Originally published in Santa Cruz Waves Magazine.
Maybe I should bring a gun. The thought crashed through my mind without warning, dropping uncomfortably into the pit of my stomach. I glanced at my blue backpack and the fake yellow daisy tied to its strap. The idea of packing a gun into it, or more importantly, pulling a gun out of it, seemed ludicrous.
It was March of 2015 and I had just bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica. After landing, I planned to travel up the Pacific coast of Central America, surfing my way through Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, mainland Mexico and Baja, all the way back to Santa Cruz. A well-traveled path for California surfers, my journey was unique in that I would be traveling on public buses, alone as a single woman.
My family and friends expressed concerns I would be kidnapped, raped, or robbed. Stories of civil unrest, roadblocks, cartel violence, and government corruption pervaded news headlines. I was well aware being alone, female, and blonde, I was in danger of being a target. Still, I was determined to go. Have you ever felt so compelled to do something, none of the risks seem to matter?
I had been on surf trips to Indonesia, Central America, and the South Pacific, mostly with friends, often confined to a surf camp or a charter boat where I interacted within the same social and cultural demographic I experienced at home. In recent years, I had started venturing off alone, backpacking through Humboldt and Big Sur; surfing in mainland Mexico. Each time I dipped my toes, I felt compelled to jump in, to become immersed in a totally different world. Within the capsule of my comfortable life in Santa Cruz, I felt some vital part of myself fading. Each solo adventure brought the essence of who I was back into focus, if only for a brief stint. With enough time, I hoped I could form a clear picture.
Ultimately, I decided to risk it all. I did not carry a weapon. I did carry three surfboards, my computer, and the equivalent of $500 USD in cash. The best defenses I brought turned out to be mosquito repellant and grapefruit seed extract, a preventative against food- and water-borne illnesses. One thing I did not anticipate was how frequently and violently I would get sick. Though a daily dose of grapefruit seed extract thwarted numerous close calls, I got food poisoning at least once in every country.
Aside from that discomfort, the most tangible dangers were mosquitoes, jellyfish, and one particularly terrifying crocodile. As I paddled across a river with two other surfers to a remote break in mainland Mexico, I noticed a strange current trailing alongside me. Moments later, a crocodile head surfaced approximately 6 feet away from me. “Crocodile!” I screamed. We all looked in disbelief for a split second before coming to our senses and high-tailing it to shore. Luckily, the crocodile did not attack.
I wish I could say the same about the jellyfish and the mosquitos. I spent a large portion of my trip itching the red welts spread across my chest, stomach, back, arms, and legs. Vinegar, when applied soon after jellyfish stings, was effective in shortening the severity and duration of symptoms. The best treatment for mosquito bites was not to itch them. Good luck with that.
Undoubtedly, the dangers of kidnapping, rape, robbery, and violence pose a threat to women traveling alone. Fortunately, none of those were part of my experience. On the contrary, people went out of their way to help me, show me kindness, and take care of me when I got sick.
For the most part, I stayed in hostels, which felt relatively safe. Unable to resist the temptation of clean overhead waves and an empty lineup, I sometimes camped alone on deserted beaches in my hammock. I also hitchhiked through roadblocks—in the same areas where deaths and shootings had made news headlines—because the buses could not pass through them. It seemed I had no other viable choice.
As I walked through a roadblock in mainland Mexico, hunched under my blue backpack, dragging my board bag behind me, I paused in the blistering sun to talk to the townspeople gathered in the center of the road. They had strung up a canvas sign across an old Coca Cola delivery truck, with hand painted letters that read: “NO QUEREMOS VIOLENCIA. QUEREMOS SOLUCION.” (“We don’t want violence. We want a solution.”) Reading the sign, I realized the people, at least these people, were not as dangerous as I had imagined.
I crossed into the United States minus my computer, which stopped working in El Salvador; one of the surfboards, claimed by heavy beach break in Mexico; and the fake yellow daisy, which fell off god-knows-where. A week after I returned to Santa Cruz, I was robbed. Someone broke into my car, rifled through my backpack and stole my camping equipment. Luckily, the thief left my backpack on the side of the road, so I did not lose the one companion I had kept for six months, through seven countries.
Despite constant itching and persistent food poisoning, the trip turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I surfed world-class waves. I made friends I will have for the rest of my life. I learned to speak Spanish. I developed a greater sense of who I am and how I fit into the world. I also learned that danger is just as real at home as where I imagine it to be, and that in the greatest risks lie the greatest rewards.