Is this really happening? I kept asking myself the question as the day developed like an image on a Polaroid snapshot: revealing itself slowly, in vague edges and familiar shapes. It seemed too serendipitous to be real, but too real to be a dream.
It had only been four months since I underwent ACL reconstruction surgery on my right knee, so I’d been surfing without a leash, safeguarding against strain. My first few days in Saladita consisted of more swimming than surfing. I lost my board—a lot.
I’d just completed the long swim in to get my board when a man named Cal called to me from the beach. I recognized him because he’d retrieved my board for me a few days before.
“I’ve got something in my foot,” he said. “I hear you’re the doctor around here.” Though I’m not a doctor, it’s true that I’m well-versed in treating surf injuries and travel ailments. I’d recently dug a barnacle out of Heathyr’s foot, which is why Cal was referred to me.
Using a pair of tweezers, I removed an assortment of tiny rocks from Cal’s foot. Then I flushed the wound with vinegar, sprayed it with alcohol, applied a thin coat of liquid bandage, and wrapped it in duct tape. He wanted to give me something in return, which I thought was ludicrous. Aloe Vera, a healing plant, is my namesake. The opportunity to help heal his foot was as much a gift to me as it is was to him. However, when he insisted, I said he could snap a couple pictures with my water camera, of me surfing with my knee brace. He obliged.
I’d gotten a few waves, and Cal had gotten a few pictures, when la barreradora viene: the ‘big broom,’ or in other words—a big set—came to sweep us away. It swept my camera right out of the case attached to Cal’s shirt, down into the murky depths of the ocean.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said when he told me the bad news. “You were doing me a favor.” Of course, I was bummed. I’d carried the camera with me through seven countries and shot thousands of pictures with it. But I knew the camera was just a thing. I valued the experiences I’d had with it more than the camera itself.
“I’ll pay for it,” Cal said immediately. I told him it wasn’t necessary.
On the slim chance that I might be able to find the camera, I got my snorkel and swam out to look for it. Cal paddled out on an SUP to aid in the search. After a few minutes of combing the labyrinth of small stones and leafy plants covering the vast point at Saladita, I realized the search was futile. When I announced that I was giving up, Cal offered me his board, so I wouldn’t have to swim back to the beach. Instead, I suggested that we turn a crappy situation into something fun, and surf tandem. Cal doubted it would work. Even once we were both on the SUP, paddling into a set wave, he continued to voice his reservations.
“Just be quiet and paddle,” I said. Obediently, he followed my instructions. Together, we paddled into the wave, setting a perfect line. A few seconds later, we were both standing on the board, racing along a fluid blue wall of water as it propelled us on an epic ride to the beach. The two of us made quite a picture on the massive board: me still wearing the snorkel mask, paddle in hand.
After we came in, Cal and I hung out on the beach. I told him all about my life, my travels, and the book I just finished writing. He repeated his intention to pay for the camera, and I repeated my assertion that it wasn’t necessary.
“I have a lot of money,” Cal said finally. “But not a lot of time. And I’d love to be a part of your book and your travels in some small way.”
Later that day, I gave Cal my bank account information. And he gave me a sum of money so generous that I had to ask…
Is this really happening? Yes.
Which leads to a bigger question: Why?
I’d like to think that the ocean (by putting the rocks in Cal’s foot, sweeping away my camera, and producing the wave we rode tandem) gave me a gift. And I want to give back something in return. So I’m donating a portion of the money to the Azulita Project, a local non-profit that’s working to keep plastic pollution out of the ocean. I’m also donating my time, which as Cal pointed out, is sometimes harder to come by than money.
By continuing the cycle of giving, I’m certain that I’ll get back even more in return. The proof is in this story.