Closed Roads

It took 24 hours of nonstop traveling to get from the mountains of Guatemala to the coast of Mexico. Twelve hours on a shuttle from Antigua to San Cristóbal, one of which was spent looking for an English girl who couldn’t speak Spanish and thus couldn’t describe to the driver where to find her hotel. I hated her white powdered face and the smack of her lips on a sickeningly sweet-smelling strawberry breakfast bar. As I hated the driver who broke the zipper on my board bag as I told him not to touch it. And the Good Samaritan with the sad practiced smile of a martyr who was working with communities to reduce infant mortality, and thus thought she deserved the front seat. Twelve hours on a shuttle, I hated them all.

The sleeping pill I took was a double edged sword. It made me hate everyone less; I was too tired to hate anything. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to lie down, and how long it would be before that wish was fulfilled. I teetered through customs on wobbly legs with my eyes rolling back in my head, unable to weave together a cohesive thought.

I finally arrived in Salina Cruz at 4:30am, spent, anxious to get on with it. I sipped a cup of lukewarm, watered down Nescafe and waited 5 hours at the bus station for the rental car place across the street to open.

Salina Cruz has a series of right hand point breaks, several of them world class. But they are each roughly an hour apart, with no bus access from the main road. The waves are finicky, and wind sensitive. There’s no internet access, so you drive around blind and hope for the best.

The tires on the rental car were bald, but lacking conveniently located alternatives, I took it, though I made sure we were all clear that if anything happened as a result of the tires, I would not be held responsible for one cent. I drove around for a few hours, checking out various breaks. They were blown out, but someone gave me a tip about a wave with a good wind break. The only problem was that the road was closed.

After interrogating the people working on the road, I learned that there was an alternate entrance, a back way. I spent two hours looking for it, getting lost, doing 10-point turns on tiny dirt roads, scraping against rocks and branches, and getting lost some more. A Mexican cowboy finally pointed me in the right direction. Unfortunately, the right direction crossed a 10 yard mud pit covered with 2 feet of water. That spelled stuck for my cheesy little 2-wheel drive clown car.

As I started to turn around and give up, a guy on a motorcycle stopped to convince me that my car could make it. I was skeptical, but he assured me that if I got stuck, he would push me out. He was good to his word. I got stuck, and he recruited two other guys to help push me out. Then he drove my car across the mud pit for me. He said he would accompany me the rest of the way to the beach, and we negotiated a price. There was an even deeper mud pit, which I rallied across like a champ, much to the motorcycle guy’s delight. And there was a deadly sand pit which I let him negotiate. It was a good thing too, because he got stuck. But he pulled some kind of tire burning, wheel turning, reverse and accelerate Houdini move to break free. And then I was at the beach, with an hour of light left.

The wave was indeed protected from wind, and my spirits lifted as soon as I set eyes on the glassy bay. I paddled out and picked off a respectable amount of waves before it got dark. Out in the lineup, I met a group of surfers from Guadalajara. They seemed like nice guys, and I was thrilled that they were there. No way was I going to negotiate that road back alone, in the dark. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. We drove to the road being worked on and waited a half hour for them to wrap up, then we were able to pass. No mud, no sand pits, no problem.

The guys from Guadalajara were staying at a hotel in nearby Santiago Astata, and since it was getting late, I decided to get a room there too. The hotel was run by a gay cross-dresser named Nicole with a chip on his shoulder. I imagine it’s very hard to have such tastes in a place like Santiago Astata. It is not a tourist town, and does not seem accustomed to different types of people. There is one road that goes in, and no roads that go out. All of the town celebrations are held in the covered basketball court. No one speaks English. Things like sunblock, ATMs, and internet are over an hour away. There is one restaurant, with two items on the menu: beef tacos and beef tlayudas, which are like big quesadillas. On the weekends, a woman’s voice screams over a loudspeaker, advertising fried iguanas, which come with a side of potatoes and guacamole.

I had dinner with the guys from Guadalajara at the restaurant, and when it started to rain, we moved our table to the covered basketball court. Javier and I stayed up late talking about Latin novelists and his surf school in Sayulita. An interesting thing about the guys from Guadalajara is that they are all Mexican – born and raised – but they also speak fluent English, are successful businessman, many have wives and children. This dynamic opened the door to some excellent conversations about science, culture, family, and dreams.

We all surfed fun waves together the following day and shared the scant bit of shade under a tiny palapa. A few of the guys picked up mixed ceviche for lunch. Octopus, sea snails, and clams are generally not on the list of things I’m willing to eat, but lacking other options, I found they were quite palatable. Travel is teaching me to be more relaxed, and more open-minded, especially in terms of food.

The guys were leaving for Puerto Escondido that evening and invited me to come with them, but I chose to stay behind. I was sad to see them go. I guess I’m more of a social creature than I like to admit. My trip has been largely defined by the people I’ve met, by feelings of friendship and camaraderie. Though I like traveling alone, I’m realizing that I prefer to be in the company of others than by myself. As a yoga teacher once told me, our relationships with other people are the sweetness in life.

My mood began to deteriorate after the Guadalajarans left. The waves dropped, and I had the choice of frying on the flat, shadeless beach or baking in the concrete hotel. One day, on a whim, I went to check a surf spot to the north. As I was driving down the dirt road to the break, I saw Tyson, who I’d met in Popoyo, Nicaragua. What a pleasure, to see a familiar face and catch up on our travels. I like to think it was an omen.

There are certain waves that I’ve seen in pictures, movies, magazines that stick in my mind. These waves are often referred to ambiguously, i.e. “somewhere in Mexico,” a tight-lipped secret, a dare, try and find it if you can. This cloak of mystery is irresistible to me. I sketch the identifying details – the orientation of the rocks, the character of the trees – in my mind in permanent marker and drive down dirt roads, that image superimposed on my field of vision, hoping it comes to fruition around the bend.

After I stopped to talk to Tyson, I crested the hill, and my unicorn reared up before me. Déjà vu, in a place I’d never been, except maybe in my dreams. Strange rocks piled up like jacks against the point, forming that unique, defining shape, almost like a check mark; a picturesque bay of aquamarine framed by palm trees; white sand punctuated by palapas. As soon as I set eyes on it, lines of waves began to file in teasingly, and though the tide was too high for them to break, I saw beyond what was, to what could be.

Right then and there, I decided that the following day, I would pack up and relocate here, stay next to Tyson and his girlfriend at their comfortable, shaded accommodation by the magical, fairytale point. It was dark when I drove back, else I would have packed up and gone there directly. But I needed to buy gas (the station was closed) and truthfully, I needed a good night’s rest. I slept the deep, peaceful sleep of someone assured that tomorrow would bring better things – a cool, shady place to stay, friends, that wave of my heart’s desire. Silly girl.

Little did I know, as I was sleeping, a protest was being set in motion by the people of Santa Maria which would throw a wrench in my plans. I awoke to find the road to my dreamland closed. Figuring that it would open again in a few hours, I drove to the beach, and promptly got a flat tire. Luckily, a group of three guys stopped to help and sent me back on my way fairly quickly. Unluckily, I had to drive an hour and a half to town to deal with the car, since driving around on rocky dirt roads with bald tires and no spare seemed unwise.

With the swell dropping and the road still closed, I made the decision to return the car, take the bus to Puerto Escondido, and return in a week’s time. There were too many signs indicating that I should leave. As it turns out, even this alternate option wasn’t easy. I couldn’t get my money refunded for the rental car. Despite numerous protests, the money was spent and gone. All they could offer me was extra days to compensate for the issue with the tire. And the bus couldn’t pass the road block. The closed road was a much graver situation than I’d realized.

I did find a bus company that would transport passengers to the road block, at which point we could walk 2 km through the town and board another bus on the other side. And this is the option that I went with. It was a long way to carry my board bag in the midday sun. But it was an experience I’ll never forget.

Huge semi-trucks were backed up for miles leading up to the roadblock. Lacking the option to leave, the drivers hung hammocks under the carriage of their trucks, or simply spread out their floor mats and lay down on the asphalt. Vendors selling water, ice cream and tamales wove up and down the stopped traffic, sewing the opportunity of this vastly hungry and thirsty market sprung up on the side of the road. Old women in colorful handmade clothes trudged across the road blocks making their way to the work or family that awaited them on the other side. Life goes on because it must.

The roadblock itself was two sets of logs, roughly the size of telephone poles, each no more than a foot in diameter, and 5 or 6 stones set in the middle of the road. A few strong men could have easily moved them, indeed, did move them into their current positions. A truck could have rolled over them, given the opportunity.

Since first hearing about the road block, I had been asking, why? And I had gotten a mixed bag of feedback. But the main consensus was, the government was corrupt. It had promised to allocate money to Santa Maria for various economic programs, and had failed to deliver. The people of the town were sick of sub-standard living conditions, empty promises, and a corrupt police force. They were taking a stand.

I saw the townspeople gathered under a makeshift tent in the center of the stick and stone roadblock, in their threadbare clothes, resilience and determination emanating from their weather beaten faces. I wanted to stop and talk with them, understand their mission, their lives, their hopes and dreams. I wanted to capture everything that they embodied on my camera, those stoic profiles, and the profound depths of their eyes.

But the other passengers hurried me along. We had a bus to catch, and they didn’t want to be stuck waiting for me. Life goes on because it must.

In that moment, it all seemed so insignificant – the long walk with my board bag, the disappointment about not getting to go stay at the other wave, my whole surfing pursuit – in the grand scheme of things. I felt acutely aware, embarrassed really, of how much I was carrying with me – backpack, board bag, daypack for the bus – what an odd, strange creature I was among these people on the side of the road. Selfishness: something surfers are guilty of by default. Competition for limited resources, in the form of waves.

A new twist on an old phrase: “When one road closes, another opens.” On this leg of my trip, it happened twice. The first time, it opened the door to new friends. The second time it opened my mind to a broader view of the world, and the realization that I am not at the center of its rotation.

6 thoughts on “Closed Roads

  • Posted on July 2, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    Sounds like a good trip so far! We may be down in the Salina Cruz zone in sept, I’ll have to have you draw me a map.

    • Posted on July 5, 2015 at 2:23 pm

      For sure, I’ll tell you as much as I know!

  • Posted on June 28, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    Grettings from Santiago Astata. “Sponsored by Taqueria Lupita” Haha. I’m Yordi. 🙂

    • Posted on July 2, 2015 at 10:37 am

      Hola amigo!! Voy a regresar a salina cruz el 6 de julio. Necesito venir a santiago astata porque pienso que Nicole robo mis pantalones bonitos! Yo le pague para lavar mi ropa y me faltan los pantalones!!

      • Posted on July 2, 2015 at 10:45 am

        ¡Oh! ¡Qué mal saber eso!, búscame en Facebook como Iordi Manuel Onofre, para tener un poco mas de contacto , se me ocurre como ayudarte. Saludos.

        • Posted on July 2, 2015 at 11:31 am

          No puedo encontrarte. Mi nombre en facebook es Aloe Driscoll…me envia!


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