Best Laid Plans

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
– Rudyard Kipling, If

Click here to read the full poem.

How I wish I could take my own advice, and not set myself up for disappointment. It’s those damn expectations. They get me every time.

Since Salina Cruz first wormed its way into my surf fantasies, it had fed on surreal pictures in magazines and whispers of perfect sandbars, gotten drunk on the warnings: you have to have a guide. If something is so fiercely guarded, it must be amazing. Dangerous, forbidden, irresistible – the worm kept eating and grew to monstrous proportions.

On my first trip to Salina Cruz, recounted in Closed Roads, I got some fun waves, but not nearly enough to satiate the massive creature that had taken residence in my brain. A brief glimpse of a right point break was like a carrot dangling from a string, unreachable, made all the more tantalizing by the fact that access was ultimately blocked by a closed road.

Waiting, watching, biding my time, I had been checking the surf forecasts, the worm poised to strike and gorge on a massive feast of delicious waves. But the same day that a promising swell appeared on the radar, my aunt Elaine bought a ticket to come and visit me in Zihatanejo, a full day’s bus ride from Salina Cruz, right smack in the middle of the swell window. It always seems to happen that way. Nothing for days, then at the first scent of a plan, waves arrive.

The worm was voracious with greed, livid at the threat to my potential wave count. I placated it by pointing out that Elaine was arriving after the peak of the swell, that I would still get 4-5 days of good surf, if not 7. I’m fully aware that I sound like a spoiled brat. Admittedly, I am a Swell Junkie; my addiction is out of control.

If you’re curling your lip in disgust at my selfish mindset, don’t worry. I got what I had coming to me, and it stung. The first bad omen was the license plate of the rental car. Two sixes. I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve always been superstitious about numbers. It’s a remnant of my Catholic childhood: 666, the devil’s number. The rental car was stressful enough as it was; at 450 pesos a day, almost the equivalent of $30 USD. My bed in the dorm was only 100 pesos in comparison.

But I spared no expense. Nothing would stand between me and those glorious waves. I pictured myself driving to all of the spots, the only surfer out, getting barrel after barrel. Funny how the best laid plans always seem to be the ones that don’t work out.

The swell was forecast to start building on Tuesday, so I arrived on Monday, just in case. As I drove to the cabina where I planned to stay, I turned on the radio and picked up a news broadcast – the road was closed again due to another protest at Santa Maria. Another bad omen. The worm screamed its own protest. It was losing patience with these Oaxacans and their closed roads. I thought of all the waves to the south that I wouldn’t be able to reach. At least my cabina was on the right side of the blockade, this time.

At the center of my focus was Barra de la Cruz, a fairytale right point break in a rural area between Salina Cruz and Huatulco. Virtually undiscovered and unsurfed until the 1990s, Barra’s cover was blown when it hosted the Rip Curl Search Pro in 2006, a widely publicized surf contest. Given the recent and rapid changes to the town, it is an interesting case study of what happens when the third world is hit head-on by the first. Unlike other surf meccas, Barra is unique in that it has, to a large degree, resisted development and maintained its solidarity.

But what my worm fixated on most angrily was the story of the sandbar. In conjunction with the contest, the townspeople constructed a restaurant, the proceeds of which were to be shared by the community and put toward public improvements. When a subsequent wet year caused the river to shift and threatened to flood the restaurant, the townspeople voted to relocate the river mouth, in order to protect the precious structure, a symbol of the town’s hopes and dreams.

The only problem was, the change in the flow of the water also changed the flow of the sand to the surf break. People say that ever since the townspeople messed with the river, Barra’s barrels have turned to burgers, the wave is softer and much less powerful than it once was. When I drove down to the beach and saw the restaurant – a dilapidated little wooden thing resting on a foundation of cinderblocks – the worm was outraged. These people needed to get with the program and move the stupid shack. How dare they threaten the quality of my fantasy wave!

Since you’re probably resenting me right about now, I’ll go ahead and tell you how this story turns out. The waves never came. Well, not to Salina Cruz at least. Puerto Escondido was firing. In fact, the entire Pacific Coast was firing, all the way up to Santa Cruz and probably even past there. Meanwhile, I sat watching the placid lake that was Barra de la Cruz, hoping desperately that the swell would arrive soon. I borrowed a longboard and paddled after the lumps that occasionally rose along the edge of the lake.

On Wednesday, Stephanie arrived with a group of surfers, ready to take on the big swell. Only there wasn’t a big swell. There didn’t even seem to be a little one. There was, however, a big storm, with torrential rain, deafening thunder, and cracks of lightening. The waves were junky, but at least it felt like something was happening. Back on the beach, we yelled and twirled, arms raised to the sky, doing cartwheels in the rain. It was good; I needed an outlet for my energy.

By Thursday, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going to find waves, if not at Barra, then somewhere else. The road, miraculously, had reopened. Things were looking up. I decided to put the rental car to work and invited Karen, another solo traveler, to come with me. We drove an hour and a half to another spot I was eager to try. It was crowded, but it looked like there was an occasional, halfway decent wave. “How can there be this many people surfing in the middle of nowhere?” Karen asked. It was more of a statement than a question. But we were desperate, and we had driven a long way, so we paddled out.

There were only 2-3 marginal waves every 20 minutes, not nearly enough to go around. The peak was dominated by a group of American kids, aged about 10-14. And the little punks could surf. As they commenced paddling around and catching every wave in sight, the worm grew irritated and vengeful. Finally, I’d had it. I burned one of the little kids. Badly. Blatantly. After I made him fall, I surfed the wave to the beach. It was a great wave. Probably the best one I got on this leg of the trip.

Sheepishly, I waited on the beach for a while, but Karen wasn’t showing any inclination toward coming in. So I paddled back out, averting eye contact with the kid. His Mexican guide spoke sharply to me. It was very clear that he was scolding me for disrespecting los niños, the kids. Assuming my best wide eyed, blonde bimbo face, I pretended that I was too dumb to understand, even though I’d asked him in Spanish just an hour before if he could help us push the rental car out from where I’d gotten it stuck in the sand. “No me entiendes,” he said finally, “You don’t understand me.” I looked back at him blankly, tilting my head to one side to emphasize the image of stupidity. Luckily, we found other people to help push the car out. You can never really recover from the shame of burning a little kid – and then getting called out on it.

By the time Karen and I got back to Barra, an entourage had arrived from Puerto, bringing news of the epic swell that had started filling in the night before. Lex had come, hoping to score Salina Cruz on his way down south. I had surfed Wet Dream with him; I trusted him to be accurate and truthful. Cringing in pain, I listened as he delivered the sorrowful news while we looked down at Lake Barra from the top of the hill. Zicatela was massive. La Punta was double overhead and barreling. It was certain now. We were getting skunked.

I wish I could say that I took it all in stride, that I reflected on my many blessings: my health, all of the great waves that I’d gotten on the trip thus far, the fact that I was surrounded by new friends and beautiful scenery, I wasn’t stuck at work like I was at this same time last year. I aspire to be the exemplary human being that Rudyard described in his poem, one that can meet triumph and disaster, and treat them both the same. Maybe someday I will be that person. But I’m not there yet.

What actually happened is I snapped. Or, to borrow a phrase from my friends Terry and Vallarie, I had a tropical tantrum. I decided to pack up and return to Puerto the next day, to chase the scraps of the retreating swell. After saying my goodbyes, I got in the car and drove away.

Only I didn’t get very far. Because the road was closed. Again. This time because of an overturned semi-truck carrying a tank of gasoline. Estimated wait time: 3-4 hours.

Upon returning to the cabina, I was met with surprised looks. I took a deep breath and explained about the road. Right on the cusp of laughing or freaking out, I’m sure I made a tense and worrisome picture. Someone handed me a joint. Though I’m not much of a smoker these days, I recognized that I needed to calm down. All of the anxiety softened, and the sharp edges of my emotions blurred into a glowing calm. I played ping pong, ate a tlayuda, and before I knew it, the road was open and I was free to go.

Eagerly, I set off for what I knew awaited me: colossal crowds at La Punta and violent beat downs at Zicatela. Or hell, even if it the surf was crap, at least I’d get to eat some ice cream. I smiled at the thought, it all sounded great.

And upon returning to Puerto Escondido, I enjoyed a magically uncrowded sunset session at La Punta, and a special day at Zicatela where my successful waves outnumbered my beatings. Salina Cruz wasn’t the experience that I expected or wanted, but it seemed to deliver an attitude adjustment that I needed, badly. I wish I could be positive all the time, but for now, I’ll settle for just being real.

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