For my Memoir Monday installment this week, we head down south of the border for some sunshine, surf and fish tacos!
The first time I’d gone off to college, as an undergraduate student, I’d had no real idea why I was there. It was simply what was expected of me. I wanted to broaden my horizons, absolutely, but for what purpose I didn’t quite know. This time, ten years later, I was much more focused. I still wanted to be a writer first and foremost, but after so much failure to this point I was ready to try carving out a backup plan. Once I had my degree, I would have options. Right? I might go back to DC and find a decent job. I could look for work with an NGO or maybe apply for the Foreign Service. It also helped that I was earnestly interested in the subject matter. International politics was all about how the world worked on a macro level; human nature extrapolated to the ultimate big picture. As a bonus, the knowledge I gained might help inform my fiction.
On my very first day I walked down a crowded hallway full of students and I felt…old. I was only 28, but many of these students were a decade younger than I was. I felt like the whole thing was just a masquerade. I was only pretending to be a college student again. Luckily most of the students in my masters program were closer to my own age and were all just as focused as I was. From the start I threw myself into my studies. No fraternities or football games or wild parties. I worked as a teaching assistant, leading discussion sections for an undergraduate American government class. I found a second job working in a student computer lab.
As an escape from the rigors of my coursework and two jobs, I joined a soccer team in a local men’s league and lost myself in the games every weekend. Flying down the field with the ball at my feet, beating a defender at the corner and lofting a long cross toward the center… For me it really was the beautiful game. I’d played soccer competitively from a young age, and while in other sports my abilities were only average, in soccer I was used to being one of the best players on the field. I had a head for the game and speed that was unmatched by any defender who tried to cover me. I knew what it was to see fear in the eyes of opposing players when they realized what they were up against. All of this led to an alternate reality that I’d considered, trying to play on a professional level, though the options at that time were extremely limited. No major professional soccer league existed in the United States during my prime playing years. That didn’t stop the “what-if’s” from dancing through my mind. “What if I tried out for a minor-league team, just to see how I’d do? What if I went abroad and tried to play in England, or somewhere else with a fully-developed professional system?” By this time it already seemed to be too late. If I’d really wanted to pursue this dream, I should have focused on it at a younger age, throwing myself into it in my early 20’s. I should have tried to play in college instead of taking an extended hiatus. Now it would just be a distraction, from both my studies and my writing aspirations. That didn’t quell the disappointment. Perhaps these regrets were merely a symptom of my failures in every other aspect of life.
When it came to soccer, the hardest thing about it was never knowing what my true potential might have been. Without having given it my all when the time was right, this was a question I could never answer. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with my writing. I didn’t want to look back later in life and wonder how things might have gone, if only I’d tried harder. I was going to make absolutely sure that I gave my writing everything I had. Soccer would still remain a passion and an important psychological release, allowing me to forget about my worries for 90 minutes at a time and just live wholly in the moment.
When there wasn’t soccer, there was always surfing. Unlike team sports, surfing is more of a personal journey. It is a direct connection between the surfer and the sea. Surfers describe it sometimes in spiritual terms. This might seem hyperbolic to those who don’t surf themselves, but launching yourself into a rolling wave that has travelled thousands of miles across the open ocean puts one in tune with the rhythms of nature in a way that few other sports can match.
For any seasoned surfer, a big part of the experience comes from going on “surfari.” Not that anyone uses that term anymore, but still, surfers can be some of the most adventurous travelers on the planet, roving to distant locales far off the beaten path in search of that perfect wave. By this point in my life I’d surfed up and down the California coast, in Australia and Hawaii, as well as numerous trips to Mexico’s northern Baja Peninsula. When winter vacation approached, my good friend Mitch suggested driving all the way to the tip of Baja, roughly 1,000 miles south on rough roads, for some warm water surfing, fish tacos and relaxation. Twenty-four hours on the road would put us in Cabo San Lucas. How could I say no to that?
One thing that I had begun to realize over the years when it came to my writing was that to some degree I was doing exactly what I’d set out not to do when I started. I was deferring my happiness for the days ahead, when I might someday achieve professional success. I’d always believed that by following my dream I would be living in the present, not trading away happiness for security. The problem was that all of the failure and rejection made happiness an elusive commodity. Some measure of success seemed to be my only hope for salvation. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were going in the present, but if I just held out long enough I would finally “make it” with my writing and then everything would be all right. Perhaps I had no money, no security, no girlfriend, and very little peace of mind, but after I finally sold my first big writing project, all of that would change. Now with my masters program I even had a backup plan to boot, but either way, my happiness was being put off into an uncertain future. I knew that this outlook on life was unwise. It was exactly what I’d been trying to avoid. Nobody on this planet has any guarantees about their future. Any one of us could be hit by that oft-cited bus. The key to happiness is to work toward the future in part, yes, but even more importantly one must do all they can to enjoy each day. That is all we really have. The present. We must learn to appreciate and make the most of it. I knew that, in theory, but I often had a hard time following through. I struggled to keep my disappointments from getting me down. Two weeks bounding around in Mexico surfing clean, un-crowded waves sounded like a good way to refocus my outlook on life.
My friend Mitch was tall and thin with long blond hair and a goatee. He was the consummate laid-back surfer, never in a hurry and never too worried about anything. Paul was more serious. Medium build with short blond hair and a quiet intelligence, his family owned some cement plants in Guatemala and he had plenty of experience south of the border. The previous summer he’d bought an SUV in California and driven it all the way to Guatemala City. Soon after he arrived a man approached on foot and pointed a machine gun at his head through the open window.
“Get out of the car,” the man said in Spanish.
Showing his good common sense, Paul got out of the car, at which point the man got in and drove away. That was the last Paul ever saw of his SUV. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any local insurance so it was a total loss.
Mexico was known for these kinds of incidents as well. Surfers traded in tales of corrupt police and thugs with guns. Just before we left on this trip, stories were circulating about surfers being woken up in the middle of the night by the beams of flashlights taped to shotgun barrels pointed at their faces. The thieves would proceed to steal everything the surfers owned. We knew that it was best to camp in well-known places where there were other Americans around. Going off on your own in some areas was asking for trouble. Fortunately we’d spent enough time in Baja to know which spots to avoid. It was enough to tilt the odds in our favor.
We set off on a rainy afternoon the day after Christmas as the remnants of a tropical storm moved past overhead. The bed of my pickup truck was filled with our gear, packed in under a camper shell with the surfboards strapped on top. Two of us took turns sitting up front. In the back we’d arranged our bags into a reclining bed of sorts where one could sit, half lying down. It was the most comfortable spot in the truck.
As the sun sank low on the horizon I took a turn in back. We’d already passed through Tijuana and on down the Riviera Coast, where fancy beach resorts catering to Americans share the seaside views with ramshackle huts clinging to the hills. Where the pervasive smell of burning garbage is always near. We’d passed through Ensenada and the brightly colored tourist cantinas. On the side of the road we drove by a deranged polar bear slamming itself against the bars of a tiny cage in a dirt lot, engulfed by fumes and the constant din of traffic. Behind the cage was a big sign for a circus, with a painting of a happy, smiling family. A reminder, if we needed one, that we were already far from home in a place where the rules we normally took for granted did not apply.
South of Ensenada we moved through the last gasp of the border zone and then wound our way up and over a coastal range. It was only on the far side, once the last signs of habitation had faded away into the distance, that I began to relax. I listened to the rumbling engine and the roar of the wind as the terrain slowly flattened out, the desert landscape passed outside my window and the sky turned a brilliant orange.
After ten hours of driving we turned off the highway and followed a dirt road for half a mile further before pulling to a stop. We climbed out and threw a plastic tarp on the damp ground, our sleeping bags on top. Nobody was likely to find us here, in the middle of nowhere. We were safe, but for a possible scorpion or two, and we slept soundly beneath the stars.
The next day we continued our journey across the desert, over craggy brown mountains and through rivers of floodwater that flowed across the highway, gouging out large sections of asphalt. Ten more hours south and we reached our first destination. El Conejo. “The Rabbit.” Stately saguaro cactus covered the long rolling hills leading down to the sea. The outline of the point resembled the shape of a giant rabbit, sitting down with its ears draped back. We camped for four days on a bluff beside a tiny fishing village and surfed a perfect left break. In the evenings we sat around a bonfire roasting oysters that we’d gathered in the tide pools, sipping beer and telling tales, as far from civilization as we could get. No school, no jobs, no pressures. Just the surf and the land and the sky.
By the fourth day, New Years Eve was upon us. We could hardly spend it alone with the cactus, so we fired up the truck and drove four hours further to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas. Passing through the outskirts we saw a side of town that most tourists never experience; run-down slum apartments, muddy dirt roads, rusted-out automobile carcasses. Barefoot children in rags chasing dogs through the streets. Even when we reached the center of town it seemed dirty and neglected. One unkempt main drag ran along the harbor. We found a hotel off the strip that we could afford. The room was passable by third world standards, Paul informed us, though it was the smallest, dirtiest hotel room I’d ever seen. We pushed two lumpy beds together for the three of us to share and then headed out on the town. First stop; an afternoon cocktail poolside at one of the swankiest hotels. After our nights sleeping in the dirt, this was culture shock. I was sure we would be escorted out at any moment by hotel security, but somehow they left us alone; the benefit of being American in a third world resort town. We managed to talk to a few girls by the pool who told us of a new club opening that night; the only place in town without a cover charge. For three broke grad students, this sounded perfect.
For dinner we moved to a cafe on the strip where we ate roasted half-chickens with rice, beans and tortillas. It was the last night of the year and we were lounging in shorts and T-shirts, watching the strange mix of American tourists and Mexicans strolling past, all wide-eyed and searching for some form of stimulation. Where did these people come from and why were they here? It seemed such a distant outpost from the rest of the world.
Later in the evening we wandered around to all of the hot spots. Rock legend Sammy Hagar was playing at a bar he owned, Cabo Wabo. Cover charge, $50. We passed. Another well-known bar, Squid Roe, had a dinner and dancing special. Cover charge, $50. We kept going further down the drag, past crumbling buildings and dirt lots. Long strands of tiny red lights hung over a patio in front of one out-of-the-way bar. Mariachi music streamed out and we peeked in on a completely local crowd. Mexican cowboys danced with their jeans-clad girlfriends.
A little further on we found the new club our friends at the pool had suggested. They were right, there was no cover charge. We made our way inside to find a cavernous room with bars on either side; tables in the middle and a dance floor at the back. Upstairs was a mezzanine with balconies overlooking the whole scene. Above it all, colorful yellow, red, and green piñatas hung in the air along with crepe-paper bunting. We were early and the crowd was still light, but there was already a buzz in the air. It was the first night of a brand new club, in no man’s land, on New Year’s Eve. Something interesting was bound to happen.
We settled in at a table and ordered some beer, the thump of techno music in the air. A pack of five girls danced by themselves on the far side of the room. Two were tall and strong, the picture of pure-bred Amazonians. It was one of the others, though, that caught my eye. She was of average height with long brown hair and big, beautiful round eyes. I could hardly look away.
“This place kind of blows,” said Mitch as we sat drinking our beers.
“What about those girls?” I asked, pointing across the dance floor.
“Those girls?” Mitch answered dismissively. Obviously he wasn’t interested.
When my eyes met those of the brown-haired beauty she stared back for a few seconds longer than she should have. Had I detected a light smile cross her lips?
“I think we should go somewhere else,” Mitch continued.
“I want to talk to that girl!”
“Well, hurry up!” Mitch responded with impatience.
We ordered more beer while I worked up my courage, the girl and I sneaking covert glances at one another. Maybe it was her light smile, or her easy-going air, but when I looked at her my imagination ran wild. I was sure that this was the perfect girl for me.
“Ok, we’re leaving,” Mitch said as he drained the last of his bottle.
“Fine, I’ll see you at the hotel.” I stayed where I was as Mitch and Paul headed out the door in search of adventures of their own. The crowd in the club had begun to swell by this time and an energy was building. I took a deep breath, rose to my feet and walked onto the dance floor. “Can I dance with you?” I shouted to the girl over the sound of the music.
“Sure!” the girl shouted back and then smiled happily, wrapping her arms around my waist. We moved together to the beat, my nervous energy dissipating into the night. When the song was over we danced on into the next, two strangers far from home in this outpost on the edge of nowhere. A new year beginning, the world full of promise. What could possibly go wrong?
One of the girl’s friends hurried over and pulled at her arm. “I need to talk to you!” said the other girl.
“Not now, I’m dancing!” My girl tried to wave her away.
“No, now!” the friend demanded. “I need to talk to you right now!”
My girl stared in consternation before turning back to me. “I’m sorry, I’ll be right back,” she said. The two of them walked off toward the entrance to the club. I waited until my curiosity couldn’t take it anymore and then followed along after them. Near the club’s entrance, all five girls stood in a pack amongst a gathering crowd. One of the tall girls was positioned in the center; short dress, long legs, stiletto heels, and screaming at an American guy who stood before her with a dumbfounded expression on his face. The girl lunged forward, kicking a leg in the air. Her target moved backwards just in time, but the girl wasn’t giving up. She kicked at him again, this time connecting right between his legs. Gasps rose from the crowd as he doubled over, pushing her away with both hands. A bystander smacked him over the head with a beer bottle, sending blood streaming down his face.
I moved backward through the crowd and up against a wall as someone else punched the guy with the bottle in the face, knocking him to the floor. And then all hell broke loose. People pushed and hit and kicked and yelled, all to a pounding techno beat. Bouncers swooped in, grabbed anyone they could and throwing them out the door one after another. My girl was among the first to go. I weaved through the crowd, avoiding the bouncers, and ducked outside after her, where the scene was nearly as chaotic. My girl tried to comfort her Amazonian friend and then the bystander who’d been punched in the face. Eventually she talked her way back inside to get some ice for the bystander’s head. I stood on the sidewalk feeling like a fool. What could I say to her now? My dream of romance had crumbled all around me.
I moved on down the street as the whole town went wild. Cars cruised, people shouted, bars burst at the seams, and I walked back to the hotel all alone. It was a writer’s education in what it means to be alive; the highs and the lows, the hopes and the heartache that come from being human.
The next morning my friends and I packed our bags and headed out of town. We found a new spot to camp at a perfect right point break a few hours’ drive to the north. The water was a warm, clear and glassy. Perfect ten-foot high waves wrapped for a hundred yards around the point. It was the first day of a new swell and only three other guys were out. Probably the best day of surfing I ever had. Liquid therapy for a broken heart.