The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust
When I returned to Puerto Escondido, I splurged and rented a private room just across the street from Zicatela. After being sick on the beach without even a proper bathroom for comfort, I thought I deserved a treat; furthermore, it was an incentive to surf the intimidating beach break. Every morning, I walked down to the cafe on the strip and had a cup of coffee and a bowl of fruit, watching the waves and gathering the courage to paddle out. The first few days, I was tentative, sometimes going an hour or more without catching anything.
Fear holds immense power, but it is difficult to harness. It is most potent when I am a few strokes deep, paddling into a wave at Zicatela. Perched at the crest, the bottom of the wave drops out like a trap door. The shape of the wall changes abruptly from a gentle slope to a cliff-like overhang. The crystalline blue water becomes opaque and brown as sand is sucked up the face, a reminder of the rough and shallow landing I will meet if I fail to make the drop. As the base of water supporting my board disappears and gives way to air, there is a split second where I am balanced on a fulcrum, faced with a choice.
I can recoil from the fear and pull back, sit up on my board and tip the seesaw toward safety, let this terrifying surge of raw power roll under me and watch it crash against the shore, exploding in fireworks of whitewater. Though I often breathe a sigh of relief, it is short lived, quickly followed by disappointment and shame.
Or in that same moment, I can straddle the fear like a wild animal, and use its energy to propel me forward, grit my teeth with resolution and shift into a higher gear, paddling harder, stroking deeper and faster, charging purposefully into the center of a seething cauldron of energy over which I have no control. Even with total commitment and focus, success is not guaranteed. For me, at this point in time, my chances of making it are about 50/50.
Sometimes I swoop down the line in a burst of speed, elated and disbelieving. And sometimes I plunge head first over a waterfall of water, curling into a ball of self-preservation, knees pulled into my stomach, forearms locked in front of my face, bracing for impact in case I smack against the sand. It churns around me, filling my ears and nose with gritty residue, gathering in the corners of my bathing suit, forming bulging pockets in the seams of my rash guard. My board flounders wildly, sometimes striking the flesh of my arms and legs and leaving dark purple bruises which bloom for days.
And no matter the outcome of the wave, when I surface and look toward the horizon, more often than not there is a long line rising up and looming over me. Standing in water which only reaches to my thighs, I wait patiently and catch my breath. As the wave bears down, I take a final gulp of air, then dive down and lay flat, fingers clawing fruitlessly at the sand as I am dragged backward toward the beach, scraping roughly against the bottom. When the wave subsides, I gather myself, and then I do it again.
So why bother at all? Sometimes I wonder why I submit to this day after day. In addition to trying to become a better surfer, one thing I gain from this exercise is humility. There’s something to be said for going back to square one, to a place where my experience counts for next to nothing, where my pride goes out the window. Some of my happiest memories are from my first few years of surfing, tasting the awe and wonder of catching a wave for the first time. When I see a young kid learning to surf, beaming a dopey and radiant smile of pure joy, I smile too, remembering. At Zicatela, I am a beginner again.
One evening in particular, I paddled out with just an hour of light left, and didn’t catch a single wave. Wary of the impeding darkness and its effect on my depth perception, I made my way in to the beach and watched the last few minutes of the sunset as the sky changed from orange to pink to purple, and the surrounding bay became illuminated with pinpricks of florescent lights. It made a beautiful picture, the soft hues of the sky, the ocean, and the palm trees juxtapositioned with the sharp angles and electric lights of the city. I decided that I like Puerto, that it is a place I will come back to.
As I stepped onto the sidewalk and began to walk towards my hotel, I thought I heard someone calling me. I looked up briefly, but kept walking, figuring it was a random Romeo trying to get my attention. But then I heard it again. I paused and saw someone in the alley waving at me, motioning me over. It was a local photographer whom I had met a few days prior, and vaguely recognized. Remembering people and their names is not one of my strong points. He guilted me for forgetting his name, and though the tone was teasing, I detected a tinge of malice. “Tranquilo,” I told him jokingly, “Calm down.”
I switched the subject, mentioning the upcoming swell and my plans to go back to Salina Cruz. He scoffed and said I needed to hire a guide, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to surf there. Taken aback, I informed him that I’d done just fine on my last trip and didn’t think I need a guide. Thanks anyway. That’s when the conversation took a turn for the worse. The light Spanish banter disappeared; he raised his voice and spoke in English to make sure that I understood his point. “All you Americans are the same, prideful and stupid. You come here with your money and think you can take everything. You’ll learn your lesson when you go to Salina Cruz without a guide and get your ass beat.” I tried to calm him down, apologize and reason with him. Nothing worked.
Finally I just walked away, a lump rising in my throat. “Have fun in Mexico!” he yelled after me, his voice ugly with sarcasm. It hurt, to have someone who didn’t even know me decide to make me the focus of their bitterness. Despite the fact that he had clearly been looking for a fight, I couldn’t shake the veil of gloom he had cast over me. I trudged down the sidewalk, my eyes filling with tears. That’s when I saw Arturo.
I had met Arturo at a restaurant when I was staying in La Punta, and we had shared a table and pleasant conversation for nearly half an hour. But when I’d seen him selling jewelry in front of the cafe in the mornings, I couldn’t place him, though he looked familiar. After I’d passed by him several times, he gently reminded me of his name and how we’d met. I was embarrassed at my rudeness, but he didn’t seem to mind.
His smiling face that night was brighter than the full moon. Immediately and inexplicably, I felt comforted by his presence. “¡Hola! ¿Como estas amiga?” he said amicably, “How are you my friend?” The flood gates opened and I answered with a choked sob. He placed his hand lightly on my arm and led me across the street to a wall near the beach, where we sat down and he invited me to tell him what was troubling me. The words tumbled out in broken Spanish, punctuated by more sobbing. I was sure I wasn’t making any sense.
Arturo waited patiently until I was finished, and then told me a story about a Buddah who was harassed by a jealous priest. “When I see you, all I see is your beautiful smile,” he said. “There are bad people everywhere who want to start a fight. You can’t let them get to you.” I knew he was right. In fact, I was surprised by my own outburst. Usually more fiercely guarded, it was out of character for me to fall apart so easily. Maybe my experiences on the road, and the beatings delivered by Zicatela, are breaking down my defenses. And maybe that is not such a bad thing.
Regular old me would have given Arturo a terse nod and rushed away to lick my wounds in the privacy of my room where no one could see me cry. But talking to him made me feel lighter and freer, like when I’m dragging my monstrous board bag along and someone picks up the handle on the other end to help me carry it; the weight is transformed, instead of an anchor, it becomes a link. By the time I finished talking to Arturo, my tears had cleared and a tentative smile was peeking through the clouds.
As we parted ways, he said, “Don’t listen to people. Look at the stars.” He walked away and I looked up at the clear, cloudless sky, seeing the bright, sparkling stars as if for the first time. Funny how they are always there, but we don’t really see them unless we choose to look.