On Elaine’s last day, we explored Saladita, a small town to the north with a well-known surf break. Since that was the direction I was headed, I packed my things, planning on finding a place to stay for a few days after Elaine left. We chartered a taxi for the day, and were soon headed down a bumpy dirt road, winding among colorful hand-painted signs advertising surf hostels and restaurants. Through the trees, we caught glimpses of the ocean, where a cluster of long boards floated amidst small, neat lines of waves peeling down a gentle point break.
After stowing my bags at one of the restaurants, we set off walking down the beach in search of accommodations. I inquired at a couple of cabinas near the top of the point, but they seemed unreasonably expensive, compared to what I’d been paying. At the end of the beach was a tall, three-story palapa that we were told was a hostel with economy accommodations.
As we headed in the direction of the hostel, I noticed a group of guys gathered amongst tents and hammocks and walked over to say hello. The four of them were traveling together, paying 50 pesos (about $3 USD) each to camp on the beach. The fee included an area to camp, sheltered from the rain, and access to a toilet and shower with running water. The price was right, and moreover, my intuition told me that I would have fun with this bunch.
The hostel raised a starkly opposite feeling, of seediness and gloom. Climbing stairs littered with beer bottles, we found ourselves in a desolate, emaciated common area, with no answer to our calls of hello. Advancing further into the kitchen, I opened the fridge, one of my strange habits. In addition to giving me a sense of how easy or complicated it will be to cook and store food, the fridge is generally a good indicator of the general condition of any habitation. This one was cluttered with various bottles of alcohol and containers of unpalatable and expired food stuffs; a dark, sticky-looking liquid pooled on the shelves and wept down the interior, frozen in congealed streaks, mid-drip. A brief glimpse into the freezer produced a smell so rancid, I slammed it shut immediately. Pots and pans caked with the remnants of some unidentifiable and slightly burnt sustenance languished in the sink, the counter littered with crumbs.
Repulsed and fascinated, I crept up another staircase, where we faced a pack of mangy-looking pit bulls with roughened skin and patches of sparse, wiry hair. They stormed us, barking incessantly. The noise finally rousted the manager, or whoever he was, from what must have been a profound hangover. He emerged from a ravaged man cave and greeted us, bleary eyed. I indulged him by peering into the rooms and inquiring about the price, which was 300 pesos ($25 USD) for a shared room. No thank you. Sensing that he was losing my business, he offered me a private room with air conditioning and an eat-in kitchen for the same price. I said I would look around and let him know. My aversion to seediness is stronger than my desire for amenities.
Camping turned out to be the best choice I could have made. Kerry, Tyler, Sean and Richard were indeed a fun bunch. From the moment I began setting up my hammock, they started in with amicable conversation and witty humor. They also invited me to share their cooler and take advantage of their assortment of longboards and fishes, which were perfectly suited to the wave at Saladita.
After I set up my camp, I examined the boards on offer and selected a soft top which looked like it had served as a scratching post for a bear. This was the board that Tyler used to surf with his dog, Ruca, perched on the nose. She was the one responsible for the claw marks. I paddled out on the soft top with Sean, and caught wave after wave. Though the swell was barely perceptible at the point break from which I had just come, Saladita was churning out tiny, lined-up waves with machine-like consistency. Though they are somewhat frustrating to ride on a normal shortboard (I tried), one can have ridiculous amounts of fun with a soft top or a fish (I did).
The only downside to camping was that on the first night, a substantial storm assaulted our wall-less shelter, which offered little protection from the rain that blew in below the roof. I had set up my hammock on the edge of the camp, directly downwind from the trajectory of the storm. Rain pelted in sideways, soaking me, my hammock, and the thin towel I was using as a cover. Though I had packed a tarp, the Guadalajarans I had met in Salina Cruz had inadvertently stolen it; after I offered it to them as a sun shade, it mysteriously disappeared into their luggage, never to be seen again.
Grumpy and wet, I moved my belongings out of the path of the rain, but I was doomed to be damp for the rest of the night. Putting on my warmest clothes, which consisted of yoga pants and a long sleeved shirt, I took down my mosquito net and used it as a makeshift blanket, popped a sleeping pill, and crawled, shivering, into my hammock. I fantasized about climbing into the guys’ tent and spooning the nearest body, though I couldn’t summon the nerve to do it. It was a rough night, but I survived. Though it sometimes gets cold and uncomfortable in the tropics, at least there’s no danger of freezing to death.
The next morning, the sun emerged warm and radiant, drying out my clothes, my hammock, and all of the previous night’s trepidations. The minute I dropped into my first wave on Tyler’s fish, all was well in my world. Every day seemed to dawn on perfect waist to head high peelers, easy and fun, without a hint of wind. Eventually, the onshores picked up around 11 or 12, but the wave was basically surfable until dark. Additionally, 2 or 3 turtles the size of a coffee table consistently surfaced among the waves each day. Taking pictures proved too difficult as their heads bobbed vaguely at the surface and once they dove underwater, they were too fast to catch.
Saladita made me want to move to Mexico and become a long boarder. But as fun as it was, I was itching to get back on my short board and ride some more critical waves. A new swell was predicted to fill in, so my group decided to relocate, and I opted to stick with them. There was just enough room in their caravan of cars to fit me and my monstrous board bag. Just barely. I counted 11 boards on the roof rack of the SUV.
Initially, we headed back to the village where Elaine and I had stayed, this time taking up residence in a boutique hostel with a bird’s eye view of the point. I took the “budget” room, which was a tent with an air mattress set up in the backyard. After the rainstorm in the hammock, the tent was infinitely luxurious, as well as private. Though I liked hanging out with the boys, I also liked having my own space. And being able to sleep naked.
The swell did indeed pick up, but the boys were on a schedule and needed to get back to California. So after a few nights at the hostel, I took advantage of the fact that they were heading north and hitched a ride. They were headed to a wave I had heard about but hadn’t been able to surf on my last trip to Mexico because I didn’t have the time or the means. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, down a dirt road that starts off looking as if it’s well-maintained, but eventually deteriorates into deep ruts and mud pits. Clearly, at some point, the road crew just gave up and conceded to the inevitable erosion of the jungle.
The dirt road emerges on a desolate beach formed by cobblestones and littered with driftwood, on which stagnant water from a swampy estuary forms a year-round Club Med for mosquitoes and other pests. There is no place to stay, no water, no bathrooms, no stores, and no amenities, except for a thatch roof structure that passes for a restaurant by Mexico standards, run by a family that drives in each day and cooks food for the surfers over a wood burning stove. The thatch roof of the restaurant and a few thorny trees provide tiny islands of shade; at midday the cobblestones and the sand melt together into a sizzling and sharp corridor, a fiery inferno guaranteed to blister even the most calloused feet. Though buses travel almost everywhere imaginable in Mexico, this is one place that lies outside the scope of even their capabilities. Naturally, it was a place I was dying to go, so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance.
Eager to get going before the wind picked up, I couldn’t employ the Nazi-like tactics that I use when I’m driving, so I walked into the boys’ dormitory with a cup of coffee, talking in the loud voice that I learned from my hard-of-hearing grandfather on school mornings when he came in to wake me. It got the wheels turning, but they turned very, very slowly. By the time we packed up and got going, it was getting late and I was getting anxious. Then there was the deciphering of the map, getting lost, parking of one of the cars in the caravan that was a questionable candidate for the dirt road, and getting lost again. The boys were very patient with me. Bless their hearts for not leaving me on the side of the road.
When we finally made it to the beach, the first thing I saw was a substantial set of clean, overhead waves, dancing in a light offshore breeze. The best I’d seen in a long time. I paddled out immediately and got a great wave right off the bat. Those first few turns on a steep, lined-up wall scratched the itch that had been blazing as furiously as my bug bites. Some waves are more satisfying than others. This wave, at this point in my trip, was the dream.
The boys were just there for the morning before continuing their trek north, but after that first surf, my mind was made up; I was not leaving. One of my golden rules is not to walk away from good waves unless forced by irreversible circumstances or debilitating injury. No food, no shelter, no water, no problem. Minor setbacks.
Unfortunately, my waterproof headlamp had proved no match for Mexico’s climate; I had recently been forced to throw it away after it stopped working and started leaking battery acid all over my backpack. But there was plenty of driftwood on the beach for a fire, and as long as I got myself properly set up before dark, I figured that would suffice.
After a few hours of surfing, the wind came up, so I got out of the water and assaulted the Mexican family that ran the restaurant with a barrage of questions about camping, in order to formulate a picture of the conditions I would face. Camping was free, provided that I bought my meals from the restaurant during my stay. Starting at about two o’clock in the afternoon, I would be the only person on the entire beach. I would have no way to leave or get help if I needed it; the road was too far to walk out, and out of the question after dark, in flip-flops without a flashlight. I should be relatively safe, since presumably there would be no one else there to rob or hassle me. Just in case, I also had a canister of mace that Elaine had left with me. Since I hadn’t yet read the directions on the canister and was wary of spraying myself in the face, as a backup plan, I figured that I could feasibly flee on my surfboard into the ocean if someone was chasing me and float there until morning. If I managed to wound myself fatally or get into some dire situation on the beach, people would show up at approximately seven o’clock the next morning. So short of knocking myself unconscious and drowning in the surf, it seemed unlikely that I would die. The wave, though very fun, was basically predictable and not exceptionally powerful, so I calculated that the odds of knocking myself unconscious were low.
It wasn’t forecast to rain, but if it did, the family assured me that I could take shelter in the enclosed area that housed their wood-burning stove. Next was the question of sustenance. Though undoubtedly, I could live for at least 24 hours without nourishment, it seemed excessively uncomfortable and unnecessary. I had some peanut butter and jelly in my pack, and the boys generously donated four buns of slightly moldy and stale sweetbread to my cause, which equated to a few small sandwiches for snacks. After surfing, I am typically ravenous, so the family agreed to cook me a meal before they left, which I could save for dinner. We discussed what dish was the least likely to turn rancid within 8 hours in the sweltering heat, and how to properly protect it from bugs, birds, and bats. They prepared a plate of scrambled eggs, beans, rice, and tortillas, wrapped it tightly in a plastic bag, covered it with a milk crate, and topped it with rocks to fend off creative animals. Add two bottles of water to my tab, and the food problem was solved.
I asked the Mexican family about post-surf rinse water, and one of the woman suggested that if I waded far enough into the estuary, I might find fresh water in which to bathe. After glancing at the muddy, yellowish brown water covered in a thick layer of mossy slime and topped with a buzzing cloud of mosquitos, I decided that the ocean was clean enough for me. Hanging my hammock and mosquito net in the trees, I collected firewood, tore the pages I’d already read from my current book, Eva Luna, and crumpled them into balls to form a starter for my campfire. Figuring that I would surf until dark, I prepared a teepee of crumpled paper and sticks topped with larger pieces of wood, so that when I came in I could simply flick my lighter and have a fire. Once everything was set, I sunk into my hammock and resumed reading the remaining pages of Eva Luna while I waited for the wind to calm down.
At one point I got up to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sweetbread sandwich, and as I sat on the beach picking off bits of mold and chewing the dry bread purposefully, it suddenly occurred to me, vividly and tangibly, that I was alone. Though I had expected I might feel scared, or lonely; instead I felt completely fulfilled, and extraordinarily free. With no distractions, no internet, no music, nothing to do but sit there and experience the wild beauty of the empty beach, I simply sat and took it in.
After awhile, an onslaught of ants made me aware that my hands were sticky with jelly, and as I went to rinse them in the ocean, I felt the grime on my face, still caked with sunblock, unwashed and filthy. Grabbing a bar of soap and a washcloth, I stripped down naked, leaving my clothes at my camp, walking shamelessly down to the water’s edge, conscious of the wind on my bare skin. Freedom is plunging naked into the ocean on an empty beach in broad daylight.
Once the wind started to die, I smeared a fresh layer of sunblock onto my face and paddled out by myself. Without a crowd of people to define the lineup, I had to rely on my own instincts, develop my own reference points. But without a crowd of people to battle with, I could go on any wave I wanted, take off wherever I pleased. Over and over, I surfed down the point, turn after never ending turn, made the long paddle back up to the top, and did it again.
As the sun approached the horizon, it glowed a surreal neon orange, and the low clouds became backlit with a full spectrum of red, orange, pink, and purple. The waves weren’t as clean and perfect as they had been in the morning, but that session was one of the high points of my trip. Once it got dark, I finally paddled in. My fire lit up readily, and I settled down in front of it with my plate of cold eggs and beans. The salsa was spicy. I was glad to have two bottles of water, else it might have been a long and uncomfortable night.
The next morning I awoke at first light. The beach was still empty, but the waves were even better than the night before, cleaner, with offshore wind. Again, I paddled out alone. As the sun rose higher in the sky, surfers began to trickle into the lineup. Everyone seemed to ask how early I had gotten to the beach, and whom I had come with. When I replied that I had camped out alone, I got several surprised looks and incredulous comments.
But am I really so crazy? I would hedge a bet that I was more likely to have gotten robbed in Puerto Escondido than I was on that beach, that I had a higher chance of getting raped in college at a frat party. Sure, there’s an element of danger in camping out alone – it’s not something I do without thinking it through, and it’s not something I do every day. It’s a risk, but as with many risks in life, there are immense rewards to be gleaned.
At the beginning of the dirt road, as it branches off from a tiny village and begins to wind toward the ocean, there is a sign that says: Beach Front Lots For Sale. One day, no doubt, the beach where I camped will have houses, cabinas, restaurants, showers, stores – a plethora of amenities which will bulldoze over everything that is there now. One day, the road might even be paved, making it accessible to more cars, and thus, even more surfers. But I had the privilege of experiencing it wild and feral, virgin and vacant, untamed and untidy. And for a brief stretch of time, it was all mine. Best of all, it was free, and so was I.